SF’s best bubble tea
This Bay Area mini-chain delivers skillfully concocted drinks for sippers on both ends of the spectrum: tea connoisseurs and sweets-lovers. The space is small but inviting, with illustrated drink recipes adorning the mango-colored walls. The offerings span milk teas, creamas (tea topped with a whipped topping), fruit teas and brewed teas, but the most popular drinks are those that let the tea’s natural flavor shine through: Okinawa (roasted brown sugar) pearl milk tea, Hokkaido pearl milk tea, matcha red bean milk tea and black sesame milk tea—all paired with honey boba. (Of course, the teenage set clamors for dessert blends like Oreo milk tea and ice cream green tea.) Toppings include jam, fruit flavoring, pudding and jelly and orders can be customized to your preferred sweetness and ice levels.
You can gauge the quality of Purple Kow's bubble tea by the constant line streaming out its doors. It's particularly packed in the evenings, when movie-goers from the nearby Balboa theater pile into the shop’s orange banquettes. The Kow’s smooth milk teas can be complemented by chocolate, caramel and egg puddings, grass jelly, aloe and boba. The most popular drink is the D3: iced milk tea with caramel pudding and boba.
Come for the candy, stay for the bubble tea. Though kids throng around the bulk bins filled with sweets and dried fruit, this 20-year-old standby also claims to have the best tapioca in town. While that distinction is hotly debated, Wonderful has an uncontested variety of tapioca: almond, coconut, mint, sesame, peanut, ginger, honeydew, chocolate, coffee, red bean and many more. The café uses fresh fruit, not powder or syrup. The extensive menu sprawls across the wall, with handwritten additions tacked on below. Drinks come in inventive combinations, like piña colada tapioca with almond jelly, watermelon juice tapioca, and oatmeal milk tea with pearls.
iTea took over the storefront of the beleaguered Teaway—a welcome upgrade. The menu includes fruit-based teas, creamas, slushies and smoothies, but the real draw is the classic milk teas. Go for the Hokkaido milk tea with pudding and pearls or the mango sago, a fresh fruit drink with chewy boba. Boba lovers often opt for the Panda milk tea, an oolong milk tea laden with a generous scoop of black and white boba. The spot gets bonus points for its efficient ordering system and customized sweetness levels.
The brainchild of two former Timbuk2 employees, this branding-savvy boba shop began as a humble pop-up in 2011. Yes, the drinks are expensive—up to 30 percent more than some outer-borough competitors—but you're paying for high-quality ingredients: premium teas, house-made syrups made from cane sugar and Straus organic milk. Milk teas flavors include lychee green tea, muscat oolong, rose black tea, Indian chai, chamomile mint and more, and can be garnished with tapioca and various jellies. You'll also find rotating specials, like pandan jelly or frozen custard. Each drink offers the choice of organic milk, Califia farms almond milk or organic soy milk.
Though the neon walls and zany graphics appeal to a younger crowd, this Bay Area chain takes its teas seriously. All are seasonally selected and imported from Taiwan. The spot is best known for its roasted milk tea with grass jelly, an acquired (some say addictive) taste. Fresh pearls are cooked every few hours and each beverage is brewed to order.
Outfitted with white walls, wooden tables and large windows, this minimalist cafe offers a grown-up alternative to the Sunset's cramped, teen-flooded bubble tea shops. The specialty tea latte comes in matcha, jasmine, chai, honey coconut, salted caramel, classic black and lavender Earl grey flavors—and all can be topped with tapioca after 12pm. In addition to tea, you'll find Ritual coffee and baked goods from Devil's Teeth Baking Company. But the best time to visit is on weekends, when the café gets a fresh delivery from Dynamo Donut.
Plentea has built a loyal following for its reusable glass jars, an eco-friendly alternative to boba shops’ typical giant plastic cups. (Get a 10 percent discount on your next order if you bring the bottle back.) The sweet ice milk teas are popular (Nutella milk tea!), as are the sea salt creamas. Each can be topped with jelly, pudding, aloe or the house-made honey tapioca. It's not all about the bubble tea here, though: there's a full menu of waffles—and waffle sandwiches—as well.
Customers dictate their sugar and ice levels at this Parkside take-out spot. The loose-leaf teas are all brewed to order by an espresso machine, which lends consistency in strength and flavor. The sweet British toffee milk tea is a perennial favorite, as is the avocado smoothie paired with pudding or pearls. Fresh genmaicha and high mountain milk teas are tasty alternatives for those looking to dial down the sweetness.
Customize your drink by choosing a tea, flavoring, and sweetness level at this consistently mobbed Bay Area chain. The selling point is the multitude of flavors, which run the gamut from peppermint to green apple to rose. Though the taste is in Torani syrups rather than real fruit, the ability to mix and match leads to unusual combinations, like watermelon-peach-mango and peach-lychee-passion fruit. Honey boba comes with every drink, though some opt for the "popping boba"—tapioca filled with fruity syrup. Other than the fruit teas, drinkable desserts like the s'mores milk tea are popular.