The Great Bubble Tea Battle

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The Great Bubble Tea Battle

One dozen bubble teas, aka all of Sophia's wildest dreams on one table.

One dozen bubble teas, aka all of Sophia's wildest dreams on one table.

One dozen bubble teas, aka all of Sophia's wildest dreams on one table.

One dozen bubble teas, aka all of Sophia's wildest dreams on one table.

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Bubble tea, also known as pearl tea or boba, is a drink made up of tea (herbal or fruity, with or without milk) and chewy tapioca balls (the “bubbles”). Invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, this drink has exploded in popularity in Western culture in recent years for its great taste, fun colors and endless customizable options for flavors and toppings.

Bubble tea preferences can be as specific as Starbucks orders — almond milk, grass jelly, 50% sugar and 25% ice, please. Just as polarizing, though, is the question of which bubble tea store is the best. Loyalties run deep, as I found when I sent out an online survey to East students about their bubble tea preferences:

“Fell in love with Kung Fu Tea, gives me great vibes.”

“Every time I walk into Bubblelicious, they already know what I want. They’re super friendly and always welcome me with a smile.”

“Tea-Do >>>> Kung Fu Tea cuz KFT overpriced and got too much cream. KFT is for posers and wannabes, Tea-Do and Vivis are for the real Gs.”

And so, intrigued by the fervor surrounding this humble drink, I decided to conduct my own intensive research to compare our local bubble tea stores, offering myself up as a noble guinea pig to finally settle The Great Bubble Tea Battle.

Sophia, living her best life.

METHODOLOGY

I spent a Sunday morning running around Cherry Hill and Philadelphia Chinatown buying drinks from a total of six local bubble tea stores: Kung Fu Tea, Mr. Wish, Bubblelicious Lab, Tea-Do, Vivi and A Cup of Tea. At each store, I ordered two drinks — first, the classic black milk tea with bubbles, a staple offering I could use to directly compare the stores against each other, and second, a specialty drink I picked by asking the cashier, “What’s a popular drink you sell that I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else?,” to showcase the most unique elements of each store. The exception was A Cup of Tea, whose black milk teas weren’t yet ready when I arrived about 15 minutes after opening, so I found the closest alternative by getting the fresh rose tea with milk foam.

Regular teas, from left to right: Tea-Do, Vivi, Bubblelicious, Mr. Wish, Kung Fu Tea.

I purchased all the drinks before coming back to Cherry Hill to taste them at the same time. After taking a moment to revel in fulfilling a childhood dream (a dozen cups of bubble tea!! all for me!!), I rated each store on seven criteria, from 1 (worst) to 5 (best): tea taste, tapioca taste, cost, menu variety, packaging/aesthetics, store ambience and quality of service. Finally, I combined my overall impressions to arrive at a definitive ranking of the six stores.

 

 

FIRST PLACE: TEA-DO

Regular Bubble Milk Tea

Tea taste: 5/5

Tapioca taste: 4/5

Cost: $3.00

Specialty Drink: The Grasshopper (green apple, pear with green tea, lychee jelly)

Tea taste: 4.5/5

Tapioca taste: N/A

Cost: $4.00

Store

Menu variety: 4/5

Packaging/aesthetics: 4/5

Store ambience: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Comments: Tea-Do was great across the board. Although its black milk tea was the cheapest of all the regular drinks I tried, it was also my favorite — smooth and creamy but not overwhelmingly sweet, and they didn’t charge extra for bubbles. The green ombré Grasshopper specialty drink tasted light and refreshing; the lychee jelly added some interesting texture. The store was well-staffed, even on a quiet Sunday morning, and the employees there were eager to make recommendations and show me around the menu. The space was cozy, with board games and a small lounge corner, but it would get a bit too cramped to sit and study on a busy afternoon in a prime location in Chinatown.

 

SECOND PLACE: A CUP OF TEA

“Regular” Rose Tea with Milk Foam

Tea taste: 5/5

Tapioca taste: N/A

Cost: $4.50

Specialty Drink: Strawberry Tea with Milk Foam

Tea taste: 4.5/5

Tapioca taste: N/A

Cost: $5.50

Store

Menu variety: 4/5

Packaging/aesthetics: 4.5/5

Store ambience: 2/5

Service: 3/5

Comments: A Cup of Tea offers some unusual ingredients in its drinks such as uji matcha, gyokuro and longan, but I was disappointed that only two sections of the menu were ready to order from when I entered the store in the mid-morning. The options that I could select, however, were fantastic — in fact, the rose tea was my favorite of all dozen drinks I tried that day. The slightly savory milk foam was a cool twist that complemented both the floral and fruity flavors. (Tip: instead of using a straw, sip from the top at an angle to get the best foam to tea ratio.) My main criticism would be the store’s sparse and unfinished decor, which contributed to a rather dreary atmosphere. Nonetheless, it’s hard to believe how underrated this relatively new location is, and I’d highly recommend others to give it a shot.

 

THIRD PLACE: MR. WISH

Regular Bubble Milk Tea

Tea taste: 4/5

Tapioca taste: 5/5

Cost: $3.75

Specialty Drink: Wish Special (passionfruit, orange, lemon, pineapple)

Tea taste: 3.5/5

Tapioca taste: N/A

Cost: $4.25

Store

Menu variety: 4/5

Packaging/aesthetics: 3.5/5

Store ambience: 4/5

Service: 4/5

Comments: Mr. Wish’s regular black milk tea was less sweet and creamy than most of the others, and it would make a good choice for those who prefer the earthier (and arguably more authentic) tea notes. The tapioca in this one really shined — it had that just-right level of chewiness that none of the others could quite hit. The summery Wish Special contained four types of fresh-cut fruit, but they all sort of blended together into a generic tropical juice flavor. The store itself was bright and clean, and customers’ Polaroid photos on the walls were a cute touch. Overall, it’s a solid choice for a refreshing drink and my recommendation for bubble tea on this side of the bridge.

 

FOURTH PLACE: KUNG FU TEA

Regular Bubble Milk Tea

Tea taste: 3/5

Tapioca taste: 2/5

Cost: $4.00

Specialty Drink: Yogurt Orange

Tea taste: 3/5

Tapioca taste: 2/5

Cost: $5.00

Store

Menu variety: 5/5

Packaging/aesthetics: 4/5

Store ambience: 5/5

Service: 4/5

Comments: Kung Fu Tea is by far the most popular local bubble tea store among East students, but I just couldn’t get behind the hype. My regular milk tea had a floral, sickly sweet aftertaste. I could tell the Yogurt Orange was made with fresh-squeezed juice, but it was one-note and underwhelming for the five dollars I paid. In both drinks, the tapioca was tough and gummy and annoying to chew, like the batch had been sitting out for a long time. On the plus side, the store itself has some great vibes — wide menu variety, fun hangout atmosphere and close proximity to the mall and movies. Unfortunately, though, I can’t recommend it over other stores with better drinks. Don’t @ me.

 

FIFTH PLACE: VIVI

Regular Bubble Milk Tea

Tea taste: 3/5

Tapioca taste: 4/5

Cost: $3.50

Specialty Drink: Kumquat Lemon Green Tea

Tea taste: 0.5/5

Tapioca taste: 4/5

Cost: $3.50

Store

Menu variety: 4/5

Packaging/aesthetics: 5/5

Store ambience: 4/5

Service: 4/5

Comments: I had high hopes for Vivi. Its pink cartoon skull theme is girly and fun, the regular black milk tea was decent albeit unexceptional, and the tapioca had a good consistency. When it came time to order a specialty drink, I hoped the cashier would recommend one of the many cute names on the menu, like Blue Galaxy or Red Moo Milk. Instead, she pointed me to the Kumquat Lemon Green Tea. What the heck is a kumquat? The drink turned out to taste even worse than its name sounded, with an overwhelming medicinal aftertaste that got stronger the longer I let it linger. It was hot-potatoed around the group of friends I brought to help me finish all the tea and ended up sitting, abandoned, on an empty table. Vivi was pretty hit-or-miss, and it pales in comparison to Tea-Do across the street, but it might be worth a visit for the more adventurous. Just stay away from the kumquat. Whatever that is.

 

LAST PLACE: BUBBLELICIOUS LAB

Regular Bubble Milk Tea

Tea taste: 2/5

Tapioca taste: 2/5

Cost: $4.25

Specialty Drink: Yogurt Lychee with Lychee Jelly

Tea taste: 1/5

Tapioca taste: 2/5

Cost: $4.25

Store

Menu variety: 3.5/5

Packaging/aesthetics: 2/5

Store ambience: 2/5

Service: 3/5

Comments: Bubblelicious is great in theory — you can make a custom drink by mixing and matching a variety of flavors, sugar levels and toppings. In practice, however, I wasn’t a fan. What the store advertises as a “bubble tea lab” is really just two stands of flavor options and a mini fridge of toppings on the counter near the checkout. The base flavor powders and syrups are stored in vials and syringes and the toppings in Petri dishes, but you don’t get to interact with any of this “lab equipment” yourself, only put them on a metal tray and hand them over to an employee who will promptly remove the ingredients from their containers and prepare them like literally any other bubble tea store does. The whole experience had me feeling less like a mad scientist and more weirdly uncomfortable about drinking something that came from a syringe. I recreated a regular black milk tea with bubbles and put together my own lychee yogurt drink with jelly. Both tasted overly sweet, syrupy and artificial, with half-melted tapioca that stuck to my teeth. The science-y customization gimmick just isn’t entertaining enough to make up for the lack of fresh ingredients. You’re paying for the novelty of this one.

Specialty teas, from left to right: Tea-Do, Vivi, Bubblelicious, A Cup of Tea, Mr. Wish, Kung Fu Tea.

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