Wicker Park’s Bee & Tea embraces a design-your-own ethos, putting customers in control of tea type, temperature, sweetness level, flavorings (there are 24 in all, from expected options like mango to something puzzlingly called “heat”) and add-ins (choose from 15, like sweet honey boba or coffee-flavored jelly). Despite (or perhaps because of) all of these options, the menu here is easy to navigate, and feels aimed at the masses rather than bubble tea buffs (not surprising, since Bee & Tea mastermind Mandy Calara, who happens to own the Forever Yogurt chain, has plans to set up outlets across Chicagoland). Some of the syrup-based flavorings, like the cherry and almond, can taste a little fake, and we had much better luck with a mango-flavored green tea combined with lychee popping boba, little orbs of tart juice that burst pleasingly between your teeth.
For years following its arrival in Chicago, bubble tea was like a cult favorite—aficionados guzzled it obsessively, and no one else had ever heard of it. But the recent openings of several stylish outfits suggest that this once-esoteric drink may be becoming mainstream.
So what the heck is bubble tea anyway? Originally, the concoction—which was devised in Taiwan in the ‘80s and made its way here in the late ‘90s—comprised just milky, sweetened black or green tea and a hearty scoop of the semi-firm, much-more-pleasant-than-they-sound globules of tapioca starch known as boba, bubbles or pearls. But like Miley Cyrus in drink form, bubble tea has since broken the narrow constraints of this pure persona to become an anything-goes kind of beverage. Some iterations add fresh fruit or fruit syrup to the original formula; some hold the milk while others skip the tea altogether, subbing in blended fruit and ice or even yogurt, for more of a fruit smoothie. Not even the eponymous bubbles are sacred, with some shops offering alternatives like flavored jelly bits and sweet adzuki beans. It's even shown up in cocktail form. Here are seven of Chicago’s best bubble tea spots, along with suggestions for what to try at each.