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8 Refreshing Bay Area Boba Shops to Help Beat the Summer Heat

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Two boba drinks on a park bench.
Cupertino's Chicha San Chen is the current title holder for buzziest boba shop in the Bay. (Luke Tsai/KQED)

We are living in a golden age of boba in the Bay Area. In certain swaths of Berkeley, San Jose and Cupertino, you can find a boba shop literally on every block, and the sheer variety of drinks — from the cheese foam–topped to the nitro-chilled — has never been more robust.

Still, any true bubble tea connoisseur will tell you that beverage quality varies wildly from boba shop to boba shop — and, if I can say the quiet part out loud, the vast majority of Bay Area spots are mediocre at best. Unless you like stale tapioca balls and excruciatingly sweet, watered-down tea made from powder mixes.

But listen: Friends don’t let friends drink bad boba. And because I care about you, dear reader, I’ve decided to share my running list of the best the Bay Area has to offer. As the parched, sun-soaked days of summer draw near, these are the spots where I’ll be posting up to quench my thirst.

Two boba drinks on a wooden table.
TP Tea is a good choice for boba drinkers who want to be able to taste the tea. (Luke Tsai/KQED)

TP Tea

2383 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley

Here’s where I’ll remind you that the boba balls themselves are merely a topping, and an optional one at that. A boba shop serving tea that doesn’t taste good on its own would never survive in Taiwan (or any serious tea-drinking country). And so the highest praise I can give to TP Tea is that it’s the kind of boba shop where you can order the most basic-sounding tea (say, the “Signature Black Tea”) with minimal (30%) sugar added and no toppings whatsoever — and the drink will taste good as hell. The tea drinks here actually taste like tea, including the elegantly smooth Tie Guan Yin milk tea, a contender for my favorite milk tea in the Bay.

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It’s for good reason, then, that TP’s UC Berkeley location is by far the busiest boba shop on a couple-block stretch of Telegraph Avenue packed with six or seven others. (Also, “Taiwan Professional Tea” is the best name for a boba chain, hands down.)

Asha Tea House

2086 University Ave., Berkeley

As the story goes, this Berkeley institution opened as a vehicle for evangelizing the pleasures of fine Asian teas, and offered a simple boba menu as just one part of that mission. But the boba drinks were so wildly popular, they quickly overshadowed all of the shop’s higher-end offerings. More than probably any other Bay Area boba shop, the focus at Asha rests squarely on the quality of the tea itself rather than on any bells and whistles. All of my favorites have been on the menu from day one: the potent, condensed milk–sweetened Hong Kong milk tea, which is delicious hot or cold, with or without boba. Or any of the seasonal fruit teas, which rely on no artificial flavorings. Instead, they’re just pure tea, supplemented with one of Asha’s pulpy housemade fruit purees. When available, the strawberry black tea and the Asian pear oolong are especially elite.

A mango smoothie topped with whipped cream.
Dek Doi sells standard boba drinks, but its boba-adjacent Thai beverages — like the “Mango Sunset” — are where the Piedmont Avenue shop really shines. (Luke Tsai/KQED)

Dek Doi Cafe

4125 Piedmont Ave., Oakland

It’s a testament to the beverage’s mainstream universal appeal these days that this little Thai cafe has a whole section of its menu dedicated to boba, which doesn’t have any traditional roots in Thailand. That said, Dek Doi’s boba drink selection is fairly basic, so you’d be better off choosing one of its boba-adjacent Thai drinks — like the “Mango Sunset,” which is just an S-tier exemplar of the kind of slushie mango smoothie that many shops sell. This version comes topped with whipped cream and crispy mung beans. Or try Thailand’s famous “pink milk,” or nom chompuu, which is made with red palm fruit syrup and resembles, and vaguely tastes similar to, a retro diner–style strawberry milk with tropical undertones. Note that the drinks here run sweet, but, like at any respectable boba shop, the sweetness level is customizable: For me, 50% was just right.

A creamy boba drink sits on a table in front of a pillow.
The crème brûlée milk tea is one of Urban Ritual’s many excellent toppings-forward drinks. (Luke Tsai/KQED)

Urban Ritual

488 Fell St., San Francisco

Just when I got done saying boba isn’t all about all the toppings, here comes a boba shop that is, to a large extent, all about the toppings. And yet I love it, unreservedly. Actually, the tea at Urban Ritual tastes quite good, and the texture of the boba itself is unimpeachable. But what sets the shop apart is its next-generation approach to creative flavor and topping combinations. The most obvious example is its signature crème brûlée milk tea, which combines black tea, cream, tapioca balls and crème brûlée — both the eggy pudding and the crunchy-smoky torched sugar bits. This is Urban Ritual’s greatest innovation: the way it introduces textures other than the classic “QQ” chew of the boba.

And if you want to tell me that some of these drinks are more of a dessert than a beverage? You would be correct — but who is going to complain as long as they know that going in?

Two boba drinks — one green and fruity, the other one creamy — on a wooden picnic table.
Teaspoon’s Corte Madera location might be the best boba option in the North Bay. (Luke Tsai/KQED)

Teaspoon

132 Corte Madera Town Center, Corte Madera

Marin County has long been a bit of a boba wasteland, as the big, trendy brands from Taiwan haven’t, to this point, seen the region’s small Asian population as a worthwhile market. It was a happy day, then, when Teaspoon, one of the more well-regarded local (and now national) chains, opened a branch in a Corte Madera shopping plaza. Teaspoon’s offerings tend toward sweet and aesthetically pleasing, with creative flavor combinations that only occasionally veer into stunt beverage territory (there’s a line of Red Bull boba drinks??). They’re also undeniably tasty: The creamy, caramelly Black Sugar Assam is a well-executed take on the black sugar boba trend. And the “Grasshopper,” which combines lychee green tea and fresh cucumber juice, is fun and refreshing — a nod, perhaps, toward the kind of pepino agua fresca you might find at a local taqueria.

Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea

34133 Fremont Blvd., Fremont

In some ways this may feel like a basic pick: This Taiwanese chain has had a foothold in Northern California for years now, with more than a dozen locations, and it’s been a minute since the brand was super-relevant on the Taipei scene. But what Yifang still does better than any other Bay Area chain is its fruit-flavored teas — whether it’s pineapple teas (made with housemade pineapple jam), old-school Taiwanese tastes like winter melon tea or lemon aiyu or, best of all, the shop’s signature Yifang Fruit Tea, which comes loaded fresh apple, orange and passion fruit, like a beverage and fruit salad all in one.

This is another spot where you’ll want to be careful about the sweetness levels, which vary widely from drink to drink. I’ve ordered the Yifang Fruit Tea at 0% sweetness and still found it to be plenty sweet enough!

Close-up of a man holding two boba drinks using boba totes made of twine.
Chicha San Chen’s hallmark is that it brews the tea for each individual boba drink to order. (Luke Tsai/KQED)

Chicha San Chen

20688 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino

This one is for the diehards — or at least for tea lovers who have about an hour to kill. The current title holder in the contest for buzziest Bay Area boba shop, Chicha San Chen touts its award-winning tea drinks, which are individually brewed to order using the company’s patented, very Third-Wave-esque “teaspresso” machines. Is it all a little bit precious? Sure. But it does make for tasty tea. Word to the wise: If you’re going to go through all the trouble of waiting in line for half an hour (and then another half hour for them to make your drink), then you’d better be a person who appreciates the flavor of tea for tea’s sake — and you’d be well-advised to order one of the simpler drinks, so the taste of that tea actually shines through. I love the floral, slightly tannic, minimally sweetened honey osmanthus oolong in particular.

Bonus points for packaging that’s cute and convenient: Every cup comes with a disposable boba tote made of twine. But if you want to wait another six months for the hype to die down a bit, I wouldn’t blame you in the least.

A soy pudding drink with many colorful toppings.
The #8 combination at Soyful desserts is a hybrid of boba, soy pudding and chè. (Luke Tsai/KQED)

Soyful Desserts

999 Story Rd., San Jose

One of the joys of San Jose’s vibrant, colorful drinks scene is the way that Taiwanese, Chinese and Vietnamese influences have fused together to create their own unique, hybridized thing. Soyful Desserts is probably the peak example of that synthesis, with its concise menu of Hong Kong-style milk teas, soy pudding drinks and shaved ice–laden Vietnamese chè. As the shop’s name indicates, the star here is the soy pudding (aka tofu pudding), a silky, refreshing treat equally beloved in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam. To experience this fusion in all its glory, try the #8 soy pudding combination, which comes filled to the brim with ginger syrup–soaked tofu pudding, shaved ice, basil seeds, pandan jelly, grass jelly, sweet red beans and probably a handful of other toppings I’m forgetting.

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I’m well aware that this is a “drink” that’s more solid than liquid — that it, in fact, constitutes a full meal in itself. But that doesn’t make it any less fun or delicious.

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