Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash
Boba, a drink that started on the small island of Taiwan, has sprung into a popular, vastly growing drink in the United States. In the early 2000s Boba shops were opened in many Chinatowns and strip malls in dense Asian American neighborhoods.
Also known as bubble tea, tapioca tea, pearl tea, milk tea, and many other names, it has gained attraction in recent years as an emerging social drink.
Boba is usually a milk tea with black pearls that are made of tapioca. It’s consumed with a large brimmed straw in plastic sealed cups. The social drink set a flame and thousands of stores opened. What caused boba to become so popular?
The rise of boba can be credited to many things. It has a very loyal fan base, Asian Americans who grew up drinking the drink at small local mom and pop shops continue to patronize these cafes well into their teens.
Many of these stores have very valuable loyalty programs which are great for patrons who drink weekly and contribute immensely to their loyal fan base.
The franchising of boba also contribute to its speedy growth. Prior to the 2010s, boba could only be sourced from local mom and pop shops in Asian neighborhoods, but someone saw the easy cash grab and market for boba and decided to franchise the drink.
In 2020 there are many franchise boba companies such as T4, Gong Cha, and Boba Guys. Many small mom and pop boba shops do exist but are quickly suffering by not being able to compete against boba giants.
Quirky and fun names such as The Big Boba Theory and E tea has added onto the appeal of boba which caused many customers to swoon over the cafe.
Another big cause for the rise is the genius idea of many cafe owners who opened up shop right next to colleges and in college towns. Many students chose to study and have social gatherings at boba shops similar to coffee shops like Starbucks Coffee. Boba shops are starting to become just as compete as coffee shops and is very popular among Asian American students.
Boba shops offer a wide variety of drinks from milk teas, fruit teas, teas, coffees, smoothies and some offer small snacks like french fries, popcorn chicken and waffles. They offer a very comforting environment with light music, board games, and plentiful seating and charging stations for work and studying.
Many try to remain quirky with photo booths, video games, and cute decorations.
Growing up, I have always lived in a heavily Asian American neighborhood. In my early childhood, there was one boba shop in my local strip mall which served my favorite pearl milk tea and mango slush. Now, late into my teens, and a decade and a half later, there are 12 boba shops, and one soon to open, all within a 5 minute drive from my house.
I’ve had my fair share of boba. Growing up, I had boba from one of the only cafes in town, and as a teen with a license who takes herself to boba weekly, I’ve tried all the big shops in town. Though it sounds terrible, I’ve possibly drank more boba than water at this point in my life.
I’ve had homemade boba, boba from Sacramento, over the course of 17 years, and boba from San Francisco, which has emerged as one of the biggest boba enthusiasts cities and the hub for many great boba shops.
San Francisco is highly successful in the boba business because on top of opening cafes in their highly foot-trafficked Chinatown, they opened stores in many business and shopping districts which opened the drink up to a new customer base.
My boba ranking is based on each store’s tapioca pearls, as that is the base of the whole drink, the basic milk tea, which every reputable boba store should be able to make, and the environment of each store, because the experience is just as important as the drink.
I’ve compiled a list of the best boba cafes, most available in Sacramento but some being very renowned in San Francisco and needed to be included on this list. I did not include every shop in Sacramento and chose only the shops I’ve been to, the stores that have a reputable following, and have been opened for at least a year.
The very top of my list is Gong Cha, which is a small shop located in South Sacramento. The pearls are the best I’ve ever had and are consistently good and the drinks are sweet but not overwhelming and a well balance of tea and milk.
My recommendation is the panda milk tea sometimes with egg pudding and has never failed me. It’s quickness and constancy is what puts it at the top.
Plentea, a quirky pun name, sits at number 2. Plentea is a small cafe on the border of San Francisco’s Chinatown and downtown district. It offers a more environmentally friendly adaption of boba containers by putting drinks in glass jars at no extra cost. The pearls are the perfect consistency and the drinks are heavenly without the guilt of contributing to plastic waste.
Coming in at number 3 is T4, a booming franchise that seems to have shops popping up everywhere. The drinks were the first of the better teas I had but still remain mediocre. The ambiance of the store is what puts it so high, it’s a great place for social gatherings and studying because of its chill mood. It’s also very reliable as it’s open late and great for a late night boba run. My favorite drink is the jasmine milk tea with agar pearls instead of tapioca pearls.
Cool Tea Bar (a chain) is number 4 and is great for a quick boba run where you grab a drink and go, but it’s not the best for a study session or social gathering. The drinks and boba are tremendous!
Number 5 is the very popular Boba Guys. (also a chain). Not the best I’ve had, I don’t fully understand its popularity and the very long lines out the door. The tea to milk ratio offers way more tea and a leafy and urbal taste.
Check out this comforting and fun Asian beverage.