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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, August 23, 2002

String of pearls String of pearls (August 23, 2002)

Four new trendy tea shops warrant a closer look

by Kelsey Lane

"Is this your first time?" he asked me sheepishly.

"No," I blurted out. I'm not a pearl-tea virgin, I mused, glancing at the menu board. "I just want to try something different."

The attractive, young Asian man behind the counter at Black Pearl on California Avenue started throwing out suggestions.

We settled on a creamy, ice-blended mango-flavored green tea. At the bottom rested orange-and-yellow round "pearls," infused with passion fruit.

But it had taken me awhile to work up to that level.

It must have been April when I first tried this unique beverage at the newly-opened Tapioca Express in Mountain View. The menu board may as well have been written in Chinese characters, yet somehow I stumbled out of there with a drinkable treat.

It has been a delicious journey ever since. I've learned that pearl tea -- which is also referred to as "bubble," "tapioca" and "boba" tea -- was invented in Taiwan in the early 1980s. The trend has since spread to metropolitan areas such as Seattle, Los Angeles and New York -- and it has only grown stronger since. Sorry Starbucks, this is no passing fad.

Since the beginning of the year, four new pearl-tea shops have opened in the area: two in Mountain View and two in Palo Alto. Two additional shops, Verde and Lucy's Tea House (for both reviews visit have been around awhile longer and continue to serve this type of tea.

A basic pearl tea drink might consist of creamy, sweetened black tea (using varieties such as Ceylon or orange pekoe), with chewy, black tapioca pearls gathered at the bottom of the iced drink. One slurps up the pearl balls through a wide-mouthed straw.

So what are these chewy little balls that are creating all the fuss?

They come to tea shops in dry form, made of cassava root from tapioca starch (often, sweet potato and/or caramel coloring is added so they turn black after cooking). They need to be boiled, usually for about 20-25 minutes, and then covered for just as long, off the heat. They're then rinsed and soaked in a sugary syrup before being added to drinks.

Your inaugural pearl tea drink need not be intimidating. My advice is to start with an iced-milk tea with pearls ($2.50-$3.50). Typically tea shops will use a cocktail shaker to vigorously mix tea with ice, cream powder (or milk, condensed milk or cream) and a sweetener like sugar or syrup.

The concoction is poured over a scoop of black pearls in a clear cup, most often with a vacuum-sealed top. Pearls jet swiftly up through the straw while you're drinking, so take caution. You'll be chewing and sipping at the same time.

To account for taste, most shops will accommodate requests of more ice, less sugar and the like. But let them know before they seal down the top.

Once you've mastered pearl-milk tea, there remain literally hundreds of exotic combinations for your exploration at these quirky shops.

In addition to hot or cold milk tea, most offer the following categories of drinks: smoothies, slushies, fresh juices, and flavored teas (pearls can be added to any of these). You may have to do some creative decoding and look past names such as "Snow Bubble" at Tapioca Express, which is a smoothie, or "Icy" at S Bakery and Tea House, a slushy.

For decaffeinated options, it's best to stick with the slushy or fresh fruit-juice options. Most teas and coffees come fully loaded.

Given simple labels such as "strawberry" or "almond," flavored teas warrant further explanation. The tea shop chooses whether to pair green or black tea with individual flavors, and whether or not to use cream; for example, strawberry usually takes green tea and no cream, whereas almond typically marries with creamy, black tea.

One tea shop owner, Danny Han of Tea Era in Mountain View, said pearl tea is considered a dessert drink. (Which is also why some shops offer alternate sweets for the bottom of the cup, such as chunks of preserved coconut in jelly, "coconut jelly," and globules of custard, "pudding.")

And it doesn't stop with tea. Many spots sell coffee and espresso drinks and Frappuccino-style beverages with, of course, pearls. All drinks can be ordered without pearls for the squeamish.

What really differentiates one shop from another are their snacks. Some serve Taiwanese thick toast with peanut butter or other toppings. One serves crispy, spicy chicken poppers while still another offers ice cream.

But be judicious with your pearl-tea drinking. These teas are extremely filling if you consume the pearls. I made the mistake of eating a big lunch and having pearl tea for dessert -- I felt sick for the rest of the afternoon.

That said, most of my forays into the pearl-tea universe were positive and downright addictive. Here's a sampling of four new pearl tea shops, listed in alphabetical order:

Black Pearl Open since May, the big draw here is they stay open late. Double Rainbow ice cream is served, and tea combinations can be blended with ice cream and embellished with pearls ($4.50). Mochi ice cream balls are also offered ($1/one; $2.75/three). Fruit-flavored teas see the welcome addition of passion fruit-infused pearls, in orange and yellow colors. 299 California Ave., Palo Alto (650) 289-0344, Hours: Mon.-Thu. noon-1 a.m.; Fri.-Sat. till 2 a.m.; Sun. till 10 p.m.
S Bakery and Tea House This fashionable storefront which opened in June has ample seating and attractive contemporary decor. Light lunches such as soups, sandwiches and salads are served, along with an extensive array of European-style pastries and breads. Their black milk tea was my favorite of the four shops, just slightly sweet with lots of ice. And the pleasant bitterness of the tea was detectable, underlying the creamy texture ($2.75). A passionfruit green tea with pearls (no milk) was quite sweet but unique ($2.75). A green apple icy without pearls (a slushy) was refreshing ($2.75). Coffee drinks are also available. 220 University Ave. (corner of Emerson Street), Palo Alto (650) 321-2221. Hours: Mon.-Thu. 6 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri. 6 p.m.-midnight; Sat. 7 a.m.-midnight; Sun. 7-10 p.m.
Tapioca Express Open since April, this trendy little shop features 150 drink choices. Pearl milk tea (called tapioca milk tea; $2.50) was on the sweet side, but less sugar can be requested. I sampled drinks such as fresh watermelon juice ($2.25), plum snow bubble (a Japanese salty-sour umeboshi plum smoothie with pearls--$3), jasmine milk tea with pearls ($3) and a mocha snow bubble (similar to a Frappuccino, but with pearls; $3.50).

The menu also includes specialty coffee drinks. Here's your chance to slurp up red beans, coconut jelly and pudding when you've graduated from pearls. Seating is provided, and the restaurant plans to offer laptop stations in the future. Snacks offered include Taiwanese toast and spicy, crispy chicken poppers. 740 Villa St., Mountain View, (650) 965-3093. Hours: Mon.-Thu., Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday till midnight; Sunday till 10 p.m.
Tea Era Open since January, the tiny Tea Era keeps it simple. Their Ceylon milk tea had a nicely intense tea undertone ($2.50); I only wished I had asked for more ice before the top was vacuum-sealed. They definitely win the "most creative seal" award for their chic black label and edgy logo. One unique element here is white tapioca pearls (75 cents as an add-on), which I plan on sampling next time in a star fruit smoothie ($3.75). 271 Castro St., Mountain View (650) 969-2899. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.

Atmosphere: If you're Chinese, this will be familiar territory. If not, you may feel you've landed in a foreign country. Go with it: Ask lots of questions, be adventurous and try an outlandish drink. Each shop provides seating.

Highlights: In its most basic form Pearl Tea is sweetened, creamy black tea, shaken with ice and embellished with black "pearls." These pearl balls, made from cassava root and sweet potato starch, rest at the bottom of a clear cup. A fat straw allows for slurping up the chewy pearls. It's a filling drink-and-dessert all in one. In its fancier variations, no holds are barred -- you may find yourself drinking an iced lychee-green tea with multi-colored passion-fruit flavored pearls.
Reservations: No Credit Cards: Best to take cash Valet Parking: No Alcohol: No Takeout: Yes Highchairs: Don't expect them Wheelchair Access: Yes Banquet/Catering: Yes Outdoor seating: Yes: Tapioca Express No: Rest Noise Level: Low


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