Boba Fete: Five Great Bubble Tea Restaurants on Houston's Northside

It was inevitable. Just as Starbucks made overpriced coffee drinks a daily necessity for millions of Americans and consumers around the world, boba tea has started to gain its own loyal following. With a large Asian immigrant population, Houston has started to see a rise in the popularity of "bubble tea."

Boba tea originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s at the small tea stands on every corner. The teas are flavored with different juices, milk and fruit. The addition of small marbles of tapioca creates bubbles when the drink is shaken vigorously. The novelty of the chewy tapioca balls and other "sinkers" has huge appeal to young people, especially teens and college students.

I got hipped to this phenomenon by my own teen. After driving her and her friends back and forth to the tea shops, I decided to see what this trend is all about.

We found five great places on Houston's north side to bubble up, some with better hangout potential than others.

"Captain Underpants" in VietnameseEXPAND
"Captain Underpants" in Vietnamese
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

5. Heavenly Beverages

Right off Tomball Parkway, this small tea shop shares real estate with a Mexican restaurant and a pho joint next door. The decor is simple — a few tables, ottomans and a sofa. We were greeted right as we walked in the door.

Being new to this, I went for the Heavenly Cream Tea, a milky black tea that was, fortunately, not too sweet. I had the addition of coconut gels, but they didn't taste anything like coconut. They were just chewy little rectangles that I could have done without.

The teen queen had the Berryheaven, a blended ice drink of fresh berries and juice. Heavenly Beverages calls these "snowies." She also added strawberry boba. These little bobas are small round gels that are filled with flavored juice. Once they're chewed, the juice pops out. A definite kid-pleaser.

There were a number of regular customers, as evidenced by the employees who remembered their usual drinks.

We liked the option of choosing the small or large size. Committing to one bubble tea can be daunting, so being able to choose a smaller version helps. Heavenly Beverages also offers a limited selection of sandwiches and dumplings.

It has hangout potential, but the paint job needs some refreshing, as does some of the furniture. There are board games available if kids these days still do that sort of thing.

The large servings of boba tea at DrinkabiliTea.
The large servings of boba tea at DrinkabiliTea.
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

4. DrinkabiliTea

This cozy tea room is hidden in a tree-filled strip center on College Park Drive in The Woodlands. We were the only ones in the restaurant, probably because the skies were turning supernaturally black the day we visited. I liked the low lighting of this elegant business, but the teen thought it too dark.

The drinks at this establishment are a little pricier, but the whole feel of the place was more upscale than at most boba tea shops. DrinkabiliTea also offers a lot more in the way of actual teas and food, including a number of vegetarian options.

The couple behind the counter were very friendly and our drinks came out quickly. I had the taro cream tea with tapioca. I liked the taste of my tea, which came in a larger size than at some of the other stores. I wasn't too crazy about the tapioca itself. I thought it had a coffee taste. I like coffee, but not in my tea.

The daughter ordered the Orange Oasis, a smoothie that tasted just like an orange Dreamsicle.
She liked her tapioca boba, which were a bit larger than those at some other places.

For those who live in The Woodlands, this is a tranquil place in which to sit and have a pot of green tea and a veggie wrap. For teens, it might be a bit too zen.

 

Bubble tea smoothies at Thu Thu Sandwich.
Bubble tea smoothies at Thu Thu Sandwich.
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

3. Thu Thu Sandwich

Thu Thu Sandwich is within walking distance from our house and the teens have been wanting to try it out, not just for the boba tea, but also for the Vietnamese food. The restaurant was originally off of Antoine and Pinemont in the Oak Forest area. Its new location in Cypress, on Grant Road, has been open for just a few months.

There has been a surge in immigrant families setting down roots in the communities of northwest Houston and the increase in multicultural restaurants reflects the diversity of the area.

The suburbanites no longer have to drive south for an hour to get their pho fix. And banh mi are becoming almost as popular in Houston as tacos. Okay, maybe not that popular. Still, ten years ago, if you said "bun-me" ( the correct pronunciation of banh mi), people would think you were asking for an unusual sexual favor.

I had three teens with me on this occasion and I realized that when it comes to boba tea, kids really prefer the boba smoothies. They are going for the thick, milkshake-like textures of these creamy concoctions, and the addition of tapioca or flavored jellies is a fun bonus.

One kid wanted the strawberry smoothie with whipped cream, so he was staying clear of the boba. It was delicious. One teen went for the piña colada with tapioca. She thought it was a bit too sweet, but had no trouble finishing it. The peach smoothie had a strange flavor that was tempered by strawberry "poppers."

We snacked on a few treats with our drinks. The fried wontons with cream cheese ($3.95) were fine. The thitnuongcuon(char-grilled pork spring rolls) were two large rice paper rolls filled with shredded leaf lettuce, cucumber and grilled pork served with a tasty, mild peanut sauce on the side ($4.50). The banh mi thitnuong sandwich ($4.95) had the same addictively sweet chargrilled pork as the spring rolls. The bread was slightly crusty, but soft on the inside. There were huge stems of cilantro and we had to remove some of it. We also removed the jalapeño slices — cut lengthwise with stem and seeds intact — but there was just enough residual heat to remind you that they had been there.

The food was brought to us in to-go bags. I wasn't sure if that was a hint or just how they serve it. The dining room was eat-off-the-floor clean and the decor was minimal, with some charming metal flower art on the walls. The teens agreed that Thu Thu Sandwich is more of a nice little place to grab some fresh Vietnamese grub than a bubble tea hangout.

The boba tea emojis at Kim's Tea House.EXPAND
The boba tea emojis at Kim's Tea House.
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

2. Kim's Tea House

Kim's Tea House has been around since 2006, a decade before most other boba tea shops started to spring up in Houston. There are now five locations, including one in the Hong Kong City Mall food court.

The newest location, off Highway 6 in the Bear Creek area, is pleasantly feminine. Not to scare the fellas away, but the iron scrollwork on the windows and the cutesy boba tea emojis on the wall are certainly perfect for a teen girl hangout destination.

The young man behind the counter was extremely helpful in answering questions about the different options. With his recommendation, I went with the caramel cream tea with egg pudding. I was worried that the caramel might be too sweet, but it had a great balance with the tea. In fact, this was the first boba tea wherein I could actually taste the tea. There was a pretty strong undertone of Earl Grey. That helped to counter the sweetness of the caramel and I really liked the texture of the little bits of the egg pudding custard.

One teen had the Oreo Cookies and Cream smoothie, which basically tasted like a less sweet milkshake.
The daughter had a strawberry smoothie with tapioca. She liked this tapioca because it was smaller and chewier.

We would have liked to hang around longer and taste the popcorn chicken and the squid balls that are on the menu, but a call from our home alarm company cut our visit short (probably the dog again). It is definitely on the list for a return trip.

Everyone loves free samples!
Everyone loves free samples!
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

1. Tapioca Master

This boba tea shop is the favorite of the tea teens. Tapioca Master is in a tight corner of a not-so-hot-looking strip center, and parking spots are limited. However, once you enter the store, it's a welcoming room with plenty of tables for laptops and the people who love them. Behind a glass display case of teapots and porcelain pretties, there is an area with leather sofas in a dimly lit corner, perfect for small groups of teenage girls who want to escape their embarrassing mothers who ask too many questions.

This family-owned business stands out from the others because of its smartly done sample selection. There are bowls filled with various flavors of milk teas, smoothies and coffees. The numbers on the lids of the samples correspond with the numbers on the menu, so there are varying combinations and flavors to choose from, according to what drinks had been made that day.

Tapioca Master has the largest variety that we have seen and the samples help to winnow the decision-making process. I sampled the avocado/coconut smoothie and was amazed that both flavors came shining through rather than muddying each other. I also tasted the Thai milk tea, but found it very bitter. In the end, the sample I liked most was the taro coconut smoothie and that's what I ordered. That was also a popular flavor with the teens, though one went with lychee gels and the other with tapioca. The teen biologically related to me had the strawberry/blueberry smoothie and was highly satisfied with the fresh fruit flavor.
The young employees here exude warmth and positive energy, which makes this a great place for young people to hang out. There are a few snacks such as cookies, muffins and sandwiches available, and a large selection of games. As the teen squad settled into the sofas with their boba smoothies and their sketch pads, I made my exit.

Boba tea restaurants have become popular spots for teens and college students to hang out with their pals. And that's a good thing.

Lord knows it's a lot safer than hanging around empty playgrounds at 1 a.m. drinking Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. At least, that's what I heard kids did in the eighties. I wouldn't know.


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