Bubble tea. Boba tea. Pearl tea. No matter which way people say it, they want it.
Boba tea is commonplace in Asia as well as the U.S. with chains like Quickly and Tapioca Express -- and smaller franchises including Purple Kow and Tpumps -- mushrooming in major population centers in the Bay Area, including San Jose and San Francisco. The boba tea sensation has touched down in Palo Alto.
T4, a Taiwanese-based chain with three other Bay Area locations, opened its doors on University Avenue at the former Loving Hut site about a month ago and has received a warm welcome, with Yelp reviewers exclaiming, "Finally, a boba place in Palo Alto!"
Locals craving bubble tea -- tea shaken with milk, ice and sugar, often served with tapioca balls -- used to have to travel to Mountain View or Redwood City to get their boba fix.
"Everyone is mentioning that this is the only boba place at the moment (in Palo Alto), and a majority of people that went to Mountain View for boba are coming here now," T4 manager Kevin Oyang said. "It's been great. It's right on the main street so a lot of people get to walk by and see it, and it's nice to have a downtown area where everyone walks around and you get to meet a lot of different people. We have a very diverse customer base."
On a recent Friday afternoon at T4, an eclectic group of students and tech workers relaxed in sleek, white modern chairs in the small space lined with Tiffany-blue walls and glossy wallpaper sporting phrases like "Tea 4 U" and "Taiwan 4 U." They sipped on milky boba tea, served in transparent plastic cups with extra-thick straws: wide enough to allow passage for the sweet and chewy tapioca pearls.
The tapioca balls, which are made in-house and soaked in honey syrup, are the size of a small marble, with the shade and translucence of caviar. They have the consistency of gummy candy, and because of their density tend to collect at the bottom of the cup.
T4's menu is extensive, with teas, smoothies and other Taiwanese-style drinks. Oyang's staff turns out on average of 400 drinks a day, from traditional-flavored milk teas to specialty drinks including roasted oolong milk tea, honey peach royal tea and jadeite royal tea topped with cream.
Beverages can be adjusted to suit one's palate, Oyang said.
"We allow you to choose your sweetness and also the ice amount," he explained. Patrons can choose from 0, 30, 50 or 80 percent of sweetness and 0, 30 or 80 percent of ice.
T4 roasts four teas for its drinks, including Earl Grey (traditional black tea used as the base for classic boba milk tea), jasmine green tea (used as the base for classic green milk tea), oolong tea (Chinese tea with a stronger flavor) and royal tea (lighter Chinese green tea), as well as Thai tea for its Thai milk tea.
And don't forget about the toppings: aloe (cubes of aloe vera), coconut jelly, rainbow jelly, coffee jelly, grass jelly (a jiggly jelly made from stalks and leaves of the mint family herb Mesona chinensis), fig jelly, egg pudding and red bean. The fresh grass jelly and egg pudding are made in house, prepared in long containers and scooped for each order. Drinks are $3.25 to $3.75, with 50 cents extra for each add-on topping.
Oyang said popular drinks include the caramel milk tea, which is made with Earl Grey tea, dairy creamer and caramel-flavored syrup. A scoop of ice is added before the drink is hand shaken and poured into a plastic cup. The top is then sealed with plastic cellophane (the trick is achieving a clean piercing when poking your straw through the plastic lid).
The sweet and creamy drink offers hints of caramel. Even with all the dairy creamer and sugar, you can still clearly taste the roasted Earl Grey flavors. The caramel flavor is a perfect complement to the sweet tapioca pearls, which are cooked perfectly to yield a chewy consistency and bouncy resilience.
The rose milk tea, made with Earl Grey tea, dairy creamer and rose-flavored syrup, is another beloved drink at T4.
"For the rose milk tea we do not use real rose," Oyang admitted. "However, we do have two other drinks that contain real rose petals. Those two drinks are the elegant rose royal tea and also the elegant rose aloe."
T4 prides itself in using the freshest ingredients possible, as well as premium tea and house-made toppings. Roasted teas are rotated every two to three hours and all drinks are made to order -- no big vats of pre-made tea.
There's an immense satisfaction to drinking these teas, with their combination of chewy tapioca and sweet, fragrant liquid: a dessert and beverage all in one cup.
165 University Ave., Palo Alto.
Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.