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.
Best bubble tea in Chicago
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.
This semi-recent addition to the French Market is one of the Loop area’s sole purveyors of bubble tea. Bello serves up nine flavored milk teas and 18 smoothie-like freezes, as well as a range of traditional teas that you can add boba to on request. Many of the drinks here can also be made vegan-friendly and, as Bello specializes in Japanese matcha, customers can jazz up their freezes with a shot of the green stuff. Both the hand-shaken almond milk tea and the rich coconut freeze are solid bets.
The atmosphere at this late-night cafe is something of a curiosity. Smooth jazz wafts over a room that looks like it was plucked from a suburban home circa 1992, slipcovered couches, dried floral arrangements and all. It easily could be taken for some sort of hipster normcore den, except there’s not a shred of irony about the place. What you’ll find here instead are groups of students sharing bowls of bing-soo (a Korean dessert of shaved ice, ice cream and myriad toppings) and bracing games of Jenga. The milk tea here has a bit of a chalky quality, but the fruity bubble teas (essentially blended fruit poured over boba) taste super fresh and are reasonably virtuous.
Local pan-Asian chain Joy Yee’s Noodles added bubble tea to its menu way back in 1998, helping to introduce the Midwest to the nascent trend. If the long lines that form at the Chinatown location on balmy days are anything to go by, the drink remains one of the chain’s biggest draws, thanks largely to an emphasis on fresh fruit. The beverage menu here is epic in its scope; keep it simple and try a refreshing black milk tea with taro and tapioca, or lean a bit more exotic and go for an avocado fresh fruit freeze, a mildly sweet drink with a smoothie-like consistency.
The new Chinatown outpost of New York–based Kung Fu Tea aims to give customers full control of their bubble tea, allowing them to specify their desired ice level and sweetness percentage. (We find 50 percent plenty sweet, and we’re not sugar shy.) Though we wish some of the menu options were explained a bit more thoroughly, sometimes it pays to take a chance, as was the case with the signature Kung Fu bubble milk tea, which turned out to be a super creamy, faintly floral tea with a generous helping of perfectly textured boba. If you’re not into milky teas, try the longan red date, a sweet-tart black tea flecked with bits of date.
A Hong Kong import, Saint’s Alp debuted in Chicago in 2006 with a menu of more than 70 tea-, coffee- and fruit-based drinks. The brightly hued shop attracts a youthful crowd that comes for the bubble tea along with an array of snacks ranging from fried cuttlefish balls to toast spread with coconut butter. Many of the drinks here are available cold or hot; on a chilly day, the hot matcha au lait with matcha agar—a frothy green milk tea served over semi-firm strips of herbaceous jelly—is sweet and warming.
Another relatively new arrival on the city’s bubble tea scene, this snug Lincoln Park carryout spot offers a short but sweet menu of hot and cold milk teas in flavors that range from the traditional (black sesame, taro) to the decidedly Americanized (caramel, pumpkin), as well as a selection of milk-free iced fruit teas. The cold taro tea is milky and sweet, though considering the shop charges extra for its add-ins, we found our helping of boba—just seven or eight pearls—a bit miserly.