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Taiwan's Tapioca Attack

Bubble tea goes mainstream

The young Asian woman behind the counter at Lollicup whips up my jasmine tea and my date's mango slushy at blinding speed.

"Tapioca?" she offers.

"Of course," I reply.

Catch the McChildren while they're young: Bubble tea 
becomes an activity for kids at Lollicup.
Troy Fields
Catch the McChildren while they're young: Bubble tea becomes an activity for kids at Lollicup.

After adding a couple of spoonfuls of the dark, pea-sized balls to our drinks, she runs the plastic cups through a shiny metal contraption that elaborately seals the drinks with a decorative plastic film. Lollicup's logo, a smiley face inside a daisy, comes out right in the middle. The cup comes with an extra-large straw (to accommodate the tapioca balls), which has been cut at a sharp angle on one end. To get to the drink, you drive the pointy end of the straw through the smiley face logo.

The tea is very sweet, with a strong jasmine perfume. As I sip the liquid, I watch the line of tapioca balls come up the straw and then feel them ricocheting off the back of my palate. Suddenly my mouth is full of them. "Caution: Drink carefully to avoid choking on the boba!" reads a warning on the side of the cup. "Boba" is the Chinese nickname for the tapioca balls; it's also slang for big breasts. The tapioca balls are very chewy, but they don't taste like much of anything.

Sweet tea with tapioca was invented by a Taipei street vendor in the late '80s as an after-school treat. The name refers to the bubbles in the tea, not the tapioca balls, according to most bubble tea experts. Today there are hundreds of bubble tea shops in Taiwan. Perhaps the most popular chain in Taipei, the Forever Young Afternoon Tea Station, was created by an entrepreneur named Daniel Lai. Lollicup is Lai's franchise name for the international market. The Taiwan-based company now has more than a thousand outlets around the world.

Beverage industry wags proclaim that bubble tea is the new coffee. The worldwide phenomenon is growing faster than Starbucks ever did. There are now more than 20 of these bubble tea beverage bars in Houston, and Lollicup is one of the newest.

Lollicup is unusual in that it offers food as well as beverages. For lunch one day I had the fried pork, which tastes like a spicy version of Japanese katsu (in other words, it's been covered with bread crumbs and deep-fried). Most of the lunch patrons got their fried pork or fried boneless chicken steak with a plate of rice and bok choy. But I opted for the soup noodles, which were pleasant, if unremarkable. There are also some passable fried dumplings on the menu. But the food is not what brings people to Lollicup. The draw is bubble tea, and the young Asian crowd it attracts.

Two young Asian women -- Tracy Ning, 23, and Lulu Xu, 22 -- are hanging out at Lollicup when we stop by at around 9:30 on a Wednesday night. Both are economics students at the University of Houston, and both come from Shanghai, where bubble tea is big.

"What's so special about the tapioca?" I ask them.

"It's different," says Lulu. "It's like Gummi Bears in your tea."

"It makes a drink into an activity," says Tracy.

"It's filling, too," says Lulu. "Sometimes I just have bubble tea for lunch."

In Shanghai, they explain, bubble tea is called pearl tea, and the shops that sell it are popular hangouts for teens. The owners do everything they can to encourage kids to come and stay for a while, and the tables are often equipped with Chinese checkers or other games.

Tracy and Lulu have already sampled and critiqued most of Houston's tea shops. They get only jasmine tea at Lollicup, but at Jungle House (Diho Square, 9252 Bellaire Boulevard) they prefer the mango smoothie and the cake. "Americans don't get the cake," Tracy says. "It's not very sweet." Suzhi's, also known as Tapioca King (Diho Plaza, 9250 Bellaire Boulevard), has started attracting a lot of Anglo kids, they tell me. The bubble tea trend is crossing over.

"An Asian guy I know at Rice told me this American friend of his calls him up all the time and says, 'Let's go out to Chinatown and suck up some balls,' " laughs Lulu. But a trip to Chinatown is no longer required. Bubble tea shops are opening in mainstream locations all over America. There are already two near the UT campus in Austin.

David Wong, a Houston bubble tea entrepreneur who was born in Taiwan, owns a bubble tea shop called Teahouse in the food court of the Hong Kong City Mall (11215 Bellaire Boulevard). Teahouse has been one of the most successful bubble tea shops in the state, and Wong is already selling franchises. He has also opened another Teahouse at the corner of Westheimer and Shepherd in Montrose.

I stopped by this Teahouse for a coffee with tapioca and ice cream. "This one is designed to appeal to an American clientele," says Wong of the new location. The place is lavishly appointed with wood paneling and comfortable chairs. There are chess and Chinese checker sets on the tables, and several laptops provide ten free minutes of Internet access to customers.

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