Finally, a Bubble That Doesn't Pop

What's Sweeter Than a Tech Bubble and Frothier Than a Real Estate Bubble?

The Tea Garden
2601 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis

612.377.1700
www.teagardeninc.com

Teavana
Mall of America
Bloomington

952.853.9880
www.teavana.com

If this straw were any bigger, the Saudis would use it to move oil
Jayme Halbritter
If this straw were any bigger, the Saudis would use it to move oil

Bravo! Café and Bakery
1106 Grand Ave., St. Paul
651.287.9118

The first time my grandmother ever tried bubble tea, she choked violently on the first sip. This is apparently not uncommon, I later learned from several friends. How can a nonalcoholic beverage be so dangerous? Apparently, it's the bubbles, or boba—marble-sized balls of black tapioca that rest at the bottom of the beverage and quickly travel up an oversized straw made specifically for consuming bubble tea. If you're not prepared, the gelatinous pearls can be a choking hazard.

Friends also warned me that bubble tea has been invading U.S. malls for the past five years or so and that while often people find the gummy/super-sweet combo to be repugnant at first, it quickly becomes massively addictive. I was thankful (though dubious) to have been warned before my adventure began.

My bubble tea innocence was lost at the Tea Garden, a sunny, cute specialty tea store on 26th and Hennepin in Uptown. As with any first-timers, my friend and I felt overwhelmed almost immediately and had many questions upon gazing at the drink menu, which was double-sided and laminated with lists grouped into several categories and subcategories. Our server seemed as stunned and confused as we were. She valiantly struggled to answer our questions, though she was a new employee and had only just begun to understand the baffling cult of bubble tea.

After careful consideration I selected a fruity shake-style option, made with guava concentrate. My friend was decidedly more ambitious and chose to mix the cherry and almond concentrates together. What arrived after a few minutes of blending were pastel-colored drinks with a sherbet-like consistency. I slammed the enormous straw through the vacuum seal—which comes with Japanese writing and dancing bunnies with enormous, hopeful eyes—and carefully took a sip. To my elation, my bubbles traveled up the straw smoothly and without a choking or clogging incident. I can't say that the bubbles added much to the taste of the mixture; they're mildly sweet, but mostly flavorless.

My friend, who was unimpressed, likened them to eating rodent eyeballs. Personally, I was a little more forgiving, and found the overall experience to be like drinking candy, and the gumminess of the bubbles only added to the effect. In fact, despite the newness of the drink, I found myself feeling nostalgic—as if each little bubble were a childhood memory of a girlhood spent playing Candyland, watching Rainbow Bright, and shopping in the nickel bin of Hello Kitty. I also suddenly felt the need to play something colorful on my Gamecube.

But this was only the beginning of my journey through bubble-dom. After some trips around town (and a second glance at the Tea Garden menu), I soon realized that this fruity-shake was but one of many possible takes on the drink.

Here's the deal: First, there's always the tapioca pearl base (a.k.a. the "bubbles"). Generally, these pearls are about the size of a large blueberry and, being unbleached, are darker than regular tapioca. They often consist of naturally gelatinous components like agar-agar, which is seaweed-based. (Some places also offer mega-fruit-flavored pearls that are more like ball-shaped gummi bears.)

Next is the tea aspect of the drink, which can vary wildly depending on location. Some places whip up house teas or chai with milk or nondairy creamer, sugar or simple syrup, and ice. The result here is something that has a thick, slushy, coffee-cooler consistency. There's also a thinner variety, which involves iced or hot tea or chai with sugar. This version I sampled at Bravo! Café and Bakery—a super tiny but very cute vegetarian restaurant on Grand Avenue in St. Paul—which serves its bubble tea hot or cold but always tasty and unfussy in a Dixie coffee cup ($3.75, large). The tea is creamy and rich, and it goes very well with their crème puffs—delicious balls of fluffy, crumbly dough stuffed with thick vanilla cream worth every penny of their $1.25 price.

I also discovered this thinner bubble tea variety while wandering around the Mall of America amid a capitalistic Christmas coma. The place was Teavana, a friendly yet vaguely pretentious mall shop. Although it's not always available on the menu, normally you can pick your tea from their crazy-wide variety with your choice of dairy or soy milk ($3.95).

Finally, another bubble tea offshoot avoids the tea altogether and mixes ice and fruit syrups into something resembling a fruit-flavored (yet fruit-free) smoothie, which is what I had on my first try at the Tea Garden. Most are made in either a cocktail shaker or a blender. And although not all places use the same ingredients, some use nondairy creamer and natural fruit extracts, so the drink can be made vegan.

I later returned to the Tea Garden in search of a more sophisticated bubble tea experience. Is it a drink mostly enjoyed in a whimsical, childish sort of way? Or could older folks who abhor the mega-mall, pastel-kitten culture also appreciate bubble tea?

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