Bubble Tea: What It Is and Where to Find the Best


by Chad Thomas

Kung Fu Tea

Hillary Clinton was in New York this weekend. Amid her political obligations, she found time to stop by Kung Fu Tea in Flushing to sample one of their delicious bubble teas. If it's good enough for the former first lady and potential president-to-be, it has to be pretty decent right?

See also: The Best Smoothies in NYC's Five Boroughs

For starters, let's take a look at how bubble tea came to be, and just what the heck is in it.

A Taiwanese Treat

The drink was first concocted in Taiwan in the 1980s, but didn't make its way to the States for a couple decades. Only in recent years has it gained mass popularity, but its appeal has spread like wildfire.

What Makes It So Good?

Bubble tea comes in both fruit and milk varieties. Some have equated the milk-based versions to a Taiwanese version of a latte, but others feel it aligns more with a milkshake, or for the fruit variants, a smoothie. In actuality, there's really no comparison—bubble tea is a delightful product all on its own.

The “bubbles” are made of little tapioca balls that sit idly on the bottom of the clear-cup beverage like black pearls—some actually refer to bubble tea as “pearl tea”. The drink comes with a thick straw that allows you to slurp up both the tea itself and the little tapioca pearls simultaneously. It's delicious, and honestly, it's fun.

O.K. I Want to Try It. Where Should I Go?

We've carved out five destinations that we feel will completely fulfill your first bubble tea experience—or, if you're already an old pro, one of these might already be your favorite bubble tea spot (or become it soon).

Vivi Bubble Tea (Chinatown)

Vivi Bubble Tea

Traditional fruit-milk hybrid flavors abound at Vivi, including a mango and a honeydew offering. It's close quarters here, so be prepared to be at elbow's length with fellow bubble-amorous citizens and wait a bit for your drink. It's worth it, though. Our personal favorite was the Taro Slush bubble tea, the perfect blend of refreshment and savory goodness. Also, if you have just the slightest bit of an appetite, try the curry popcorn chicken. We just heard your stomach moan.

Kung Fu Tea (Flushing)

Kung Fu Tea

This was Hillary's destination, so it warrants review. And actually, Kung Fu Tea may stand up to presidential standards. Kung Fu offers both traditional tea flavors and more creamy offerings, but a house favorite is the white gourd tea with either tapioca bubbles or lychee jelly. We're hard-pressed to determine what flavor Hillary went with, but it looks like a creamier offering. Either way, you can't go wrong.

JoJu (Elmhurst)

Technically this place is a Vietnamese spot, but given that Vietnam is just south of Taiwan, it's understandable traditional bubble tea recipes could have made it between the two nations. JoJu's bubble tea offerings consist more of traditional tea flavors, such as their jasmine green tea with tapioca balls—specifically not called bubble tea, perhaps out of respect to its Taiwanese origins. Also, while this article's about bubble tea, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the amazing food offerings at JoJu. Perhaps the best banh mi in the city—including loaded banh mi fries with heart attack-inducing levels of pork belly and cheese. Yes, please.

Ten Ren's Tea Time (Chinatown)

Ten Ren's

The jury's split between Vivi and Ten Ren as far as best bubble tea in Chinatown goes, but we may give the slight edge to Ten Ren. Sure, the crowds are a bit unruly, it's close quarters, and the cash-only aspect's a bit annoying, but all of those minor peeves are forgotten as soon as you have some of their classic bubble tea in your mouth. The large black tea with a healthy helping of pearls will help you get done whatever tasks are on the afternoon's horizon—even if those just include braving the Manhattan streets.

Gong Cha (Midtown West)

Gong Cha

Our favorite spot on the list. Bright, spacious, and with many varieties of tea, not just bubble—even though we highly recommend you opt for their bubble tea, specifically anything with their signature layers of milk foam on top. The rich creaminess takes Gong Cha's offering to the next level. On a hot day, nothing other than the iced watermelon bubble tea with milk foam will do.

It isn't hard to find a great bubble tea in New York, and by no means is this list exhaustive. Each of the five boroughs has its fair share of fine offerings, and it's just a matter of seeking them out. Though we can assure you, if you stick to this list, you'll be in high heaven, rolling a tapioca ball around on your tongue without a care in the world.