Bubble tea hasn’t surpassed Starbucks coffee as the No. 1 invasive drink of the Washington area, but in the 30-plus years since the tea-you-can-eat was introduced in Taiwan, it has become much easier to find in the District.
You can order bubble drinks at Vietnamese delis at the Eden Center in Falls Church. You can get them at small mom-and-pop shops in Rockville. You can find them in shopping malls. You can even order bubble tea from a food truck these days.
But not all shops are alike. Some lean toward the original Taiwanese model, emphasizing strongly steeped teas. Others downplay the tea in favor of sweet, fruity concoctions closer in spirit to yogurt smoothies. Whatever the approach, the tapioca pearls at the base of each drink should be freshly cooked. Older bubbles that sit too long in syrup will become moist and soggy, says Diana Shen, a Taiwanese native and bubble-tea enthusiast. Conversely, bubbles stored overnight in the refrigerator and not properly warmed the next day will be tough and chewy.
You want bubbles that are soft, lightly chewy and bouncy on the tongue. Where can you find them? The Food section and the Going Out Guide have these suggestions:
Jumbo Jumbo Cafe Bubble Express: The charming strip-center operation in Rockville makes its bubbles fresh daily. You can chew them in a variety of drinks, whether milk teas or smoothies. $3.25-$4.25.
Lily Bubble Tea and Smoothie: The Taiwanese-style shop in Pentagon City offers five types of tea as well as fresh fruits in season for a few of its smoothies. $3.65-$5.50.
Song Que: The expansive Vietnamese deli in the Eden Center offers a wide selection of bubble teas, smoothies and other bubble-based drinks. Song Que sometimes uses fresh fruits in season and supplements its taro powder with fresh pieces. $3.25- $3.75.
Ten Ren’s Tea Time: This College Park shop, part of the giant Ten Ren tea company, focuses on (what else?) tea. Sure, you can order bubble smoothies here, but when you have access to fine oolong green tea, why would you want anything else? $3.25-$6.
Thanh Son Tofu: The esteemed Eden Center tofu vendor also offers a generous selection of bubble-based drinks, including smoothies prepared with real fruit, both frozen (durian, strawberries) and fresh (bananas). $3-$3.75.