Move beyond the milkshakes and Frappuccinos: Cool down with bubble tea instead. The popular Asian dessert drink comes with a base of tea, flavored syrups or fruit smoothies. Originating in Taiwan in the ’80s, its name refers to the foam that appears at the top when shaken and for its tapioca mix-ins.
Derived from cassava root, tapioca balls — also called “boba,” bubbles or pearls — are usually dark brown and have a sticky, playful chewiness resembling that of gummy candy. The best kind achieves a “QQ” texture, a Taiwanese phrase describing the al dente bounce and resistance of food that’s neither over nor totally undercooked. It often takes about one to two hours to boil the tapioca balls, with constant stirring to ensure consistency. Use a wide straw to drink up their sweetness, amplified from being steeped in brown sugar and honey.
These independent shops and chains — most of which have opened up in the last few years — offer a range of flavors, cream infusions and mix-in ingredients (sometimes labeled as toppings) that can please connoisseurs as much as newbies. Drinks are often customizable, so order yours hot if you prefer, and control the amount of ice and sweetness to your liking.
Beats by DJs Hardwell and Tiesto pulse inside this bubble tea lounge owned by EDM fan Jay Tran, who got his start serving home-brewed teas at Dupont Circle’s Mimosa nail salon. Last year, he opened his own space, shared with a pho noodle shop, at the Eden Center in Falls Church; now he’s plotting to open a Dupont Circle outpost in late summer. Some of the shop’s most popular drinks, such as rose milk tea and OMG (orange, mango and grapefruit), began as customer suggestions. Try the frosty, sweet and subtly bitter Winter melon oolong and sea salt matcha green tea. (The delicate winter melon flavor, inspired by the Asian gourd, tastes like vanilla when blended with cream.) The menu evolves almost weekly with experimental flavors and add-ins that include chia seed, aloe gelatin and crystal boba.
6765 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church. $3.25-$4.50.
Kung Fu Tea
Think of Kung Fu Tea as the Starbucks of bubble tea. The Taiwanese-style chain from Flushing, Queens, N.Y., which has more than 100 locations nationwide, opened in 2015 in Rockville and soon had lines out the door. Two years later, several more Kung Fu Teas have opened in Maryland and Virginia, with a Georgetown location set to open Monday. (Even Hillary Clinton made a stop on the campaign trail for a drink in Queens.) The chain’s set menu comes with such standbys as passion fruit, winter melon milk green tea, purple taro, Oreo milk tea, sweet red-bean slush and yogurt-based flavors made from the Japanese Yakult drink, a tart yogurtlike beverage.
Various locations around Maryland, Virginia and D.C. kungfutea.com. $2.75-$6.25.
The quiet and picturesque Chill Zone features a white brick backdrop and a distressed shiplap interior with miniature terrariums and vintage cameras on display. The cafe was the brainchild of local photographer Daniel Bui and his partners; their attention to detail and artistic bent resulted in a menu of high-quality, layered ingredients — think bubble tea flavors like bittersweet Vietnamese coffee, frosty mango (fresh mango and milk foam), as well as matcha drinks made with ceremonial-grade green tea, which is also dusted on top as a garnish. Savory pan-fried rice cakes, chicken wings and banh mi sandwiches offer another nod to the cafe’s Vietnamese background.
2442 N. Harrison St., Arlington. chill-zone.us. $3.75-$5.75.
One bite of the spicy food served at this longtime fast-casual Rockville Pike staple, and you’ll be transported to Taipei’s Shilin Night Market, an unparalleled destination for hustle and bustle and Taiwanese street-food delicacies. Dishes include a Taiwanese fried popcorn chicken, with spiced salt and basil, and a spicy beef noodle soup that can require some cooling. To fight the heat, wash down your meal with a nutty almond milk tea, litchi fruit smoothie or an understated floral jasmine milk tea.
Rockville: 765 Rockville Pike and 15192 Frederick Rd. jumbojumbocafe.com. $3.25-$6.
The modest, three-month old Ocha Tea — manned by engineer-by-day Tom Vuong, his wife and three kids — is miles ahead of its peers in terms of fine tea offerings. Unlike drinks at other shops, Ocha’s aren’t overpowered by sugar. Its diverse roster includes fragrant black, jasmine and green teas. Order the Moonlight Mango green tea with peach; jasmine and house-blend milk teas; and the off-menu avocado smoothie, a mild and creamy special order made with an entire avocado fruit for each glass.
6653 Little River Turnpike, Annandale. $1.99-$4.95.
Teas ’n You
From the Happy Endings Hospitality restaurant group (Chasin’ Tails, Roll Play Grill) comes this hotly anticipated bubble tea shop with cool drinks that feel luxe, thanks to the premium ingredient list and finely crafted teas. Try the fresh-brewed Flower Bomb, made with real chrysanthemum blooms, the pistachio milk or the cucumber winter melon. The shop also serves macarons in flavors including Ferrero Rocher, unicorn cake batter and cookies-and-cream. You can sit outside on their front patio or inside the chic cafe room, amid burnished gold garlands and sequined pillows.
8032 Leesburg Pike, Vienna. teasnyou.com. $3.95-$4.75.