Matcha latte with tiramisu salted cheese? Our guide to the Peninsula’s Taiwanese tea chains
Find your flavor with these tea houses from the land where boba originated
It answers to many names in American vernacular — bubble tea, boba, milk tea with tapioca balls. In Taiwan, purportedly the ice-cold sweet treat’s country of origin, one of its names is 珍珠奶茶 (the pinyin romanization of which is zhen zhu nai cha in Mandarin) — pearl milk tea.
As the tangle of history tends to go, it’s difficult to discern which thread leads to the exact truth of how pearl milk tea was developed, but this one by CNN’s Derrick Chang is compelling. Chang talks about how a product development manager at Chun Shui Tang Teahouse in Taiwan added 粉圓 (fen yuan), a tapioca dessert, to her Assam iced tea during a staff meeting, unknowingly sparking what would become a global phenomenon.
Although there is no Chun Shui Tang Teahouse in the Bay Area, there is still an abundance of Taiwanese tea chains showcasing not just boba tea, but a wide range of delectable drinks for your consideration. Whether you’re in the market for something light—say you seek a delicate osmanthus iced tea—or rich—only a brown sugar smoothie will satisfy your craving—these locations have you covered.
Try Happy Lemon for citrus, Gong Cha for creamy decadence and Ten Ren for classic tea flavors. Can’t decide? Shoot for Sharetea for variety. With so many locations around the Peninsula, your options are diverse and delicious.
With a broad menu, Sharetea is the perfect place to dive in if you don’t know where to begin. Spring for a classic tea with options for black, green or oolong tea. For ultimate decadence, pick the Happy Family QQ Milk Tea, featuring wonderfully QQ — chewy—items such as tapioca pearls, a custardy pudding and herbal grass jelly.
There are other milk teas with tasty twists as well, like the Okinawa with roasted brown sugar, ginger for a bit of heat and taro for something creamy. If you can’t bear to give up your cup of joe, order the coffee milk tea or Coffee Creama. Mix things up with a scoop of ice cream, available as a tea topping at this chain.
What’s better than one pearl milk tea? Two, of course. Sharetea patented a special, boba-friendly to-go handle that lets you carry multiple teas at once. It would seem that Sharetea is aptly named.
Basic seasonings on a Chinese table play with a balance of contrasts: vinegar for sour, sugar for sweet, chili for heat, for example. When eating 小吃 (xiao chi)— snacks — in Taiwan, you might feel like your taste buds are not totally satisfied until you’ve had sweet after savory, or vice versa.
Gong Cha offers a beverage that begins to scratch the itch for this particular craving — a salty, sweet milk foam tea. A blend of milk, heavy whipping cream and sugar, the foam has a mousse-like consistency that lends a creamy float to a delicately bitter green tea.
Looking for flavors that play equally well together without the lactose? Try the lemon winter melon with basil seeds, or jazz up a basic brewed tea with herbal jelly.
There’s a lot to choose from, including mochi waffles with ice cream for a post-tea dessert snack.
One refreshment in the night markets of Taiwan is a translucent golden liquid floating around ice and bright green limes. The direct translation of the characters describing the concoction might sound like they were pulled from a poem or a particular anthology of ancient yoga practices: 愛玉 (ai yu)— “love jade.” There’s no literal jade here, but a jelly pressed from a fruit’s seeds yields a smoothness and coolness to the touch like the stone would. The flavors of sliced citrus and softly sweet honey give it a distinctive taste that’s the flavor of summer incarnate.
Happy Lemon captures the essence and flavor of the 愛玉 jelly drink with its Freshly Squeezed Lemon Series Light Oolong Tea. The drink embodies the Taiwanese sense of sour and sweet, while also evoking the taste of tea produced in the country’s central Alishan area. This recipe blends in the citrus fruit for a pulpy, juicy sensation.
For an extra sweltering day, try a slushy, available with kumquat, mango, grapefruit and even Yakult yogurt.
If you prefer salty over sour, the salted cheese topping at Happy Lemon is all the rage these days (it’s a blend of whipped cream, milk and cream cheese) and goes great on top of both green and black tea. (Or get crazy, and go for the tiramisu salted cheese on top of a matcha latte!)
Ten Ren Tea
We love the cool drinks at the aforementioned chains, but we like our Ten Ren Tea hot. Now, you can wander into a shop and get an expertly brewed tea on the spot, or loose leaf ones to-go — great for a gift or for yourself. The Treasure Chrysanthemum and barley tea are both perfectly light for summer. We’re especially fond of the Kuan Yin Oolong Tea.
While you’re there, consider practicing 功夫(gong fu), sometimes transliterated as “kung fu.” Sure, the term applies to martial arts, but it applies to the cultivated art of brewing and presenting tea as well. Ten Ren Tea was founded in 1953 to preserve the art and education of classical Chinese tea, and the company went on to establish a tea institute in 1970 dedicated to popularizing traditional Chinese tea culture for a contemporary audience. That institute is in Taiwan, but ask a staff member or refer to the company website for resources on how you can take your tea ritual practice to the next level.
If hot teas aren’t your jam, don’t worry, Ten Ren can hang with the best of the boba tea joints, with offerings like strawberry milk tea with aloe, mango cooler and taro milk tea with grass jelly. And yes, the green apple yoghurt iced tea is a bit of a Six Fifty fave, but remember—don’t sleep on Ten Ren’s hot stuff.