‘Spilling the tea’ on boba
When The New York Times “discovered” bubble tea in 2017, people took offense. After all, the delightful drink has been around for quite some time. For some of us, it is our lifeblood. It runs in our veins.
It’s true that boba has exploded into the mainstream in recent years but at its root, it is the common thread that ties the Asian American community together. But whether you drink it with popcorn chicken and good company or make it at home, boba is for everyone.
When you think about the hippest boba scenes, San Francisco or Berkeley probably pops into your mind. But Sacramento has a whopping total of 24 boba places.
But where there is boba, there is controversy. Is it “boba tea” or “bubble tea”? Is milk tea or fruit tea better?
We’re not here to answer those burning questions. Instead, for the first time in the history of The Sacramento Bee, we are doing the ultimate test to find out which are the best boba shops in town.
How long does it take to buy 16 different bobas around town and review them all? Six hours. It’s the reader who wins.
At each boba location, we asked the employees to tell us what we should order. What’s their signature drink? The most popular drink? Whatever it was, we bought it.
This way, each boba shop could put their best foot forward and show off their best drink. It’s the employees’ responsibility to know what their shop’s best drink is to recommend to customers.
We noted the price of the drink and the wait time, the range of their menu and whether they also served food (in case you were also looking for a meal).
After we purchased all 16 drinks and brought them back to the office, three Bee journalists gave each a score between 1 to 5 for the flavor and for the topping. We averaged the flavor and topping scores into one score for the overall ranking.
Best boba in Sacramento
Ding Tea ~ Brown Sugar Boba Latte
Flavor: 4.5 out of 5
Toppings: 4 out of 5
Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner. Ding Tea has over 350 locations in Asia alone and is rapidly spreading around the world.
Their Brown Sugar Boba Latte doesn’t actually have any tea, but it sure is delicious. That’s probably because it’s just milk and brown sugar. But the milk tastes like it’s straight out of a cow and the brown sugar makes it taste like a comforting cup of cereal milk.
This particularly trendy drink originated from a boba shop in Taiwan called Tiger Sugar in late 2017, the Michelin Guide reported, and now major chains like Ding Tea and Sharetea have their own version of the drink. It’s instantly recognizable, with brown sugar syrup drizzled down the sides of the cup.
Ding Tea is also notable for having golden boba instead of regular black boba (though they taste pretty much the same).
E Tea ~ Mango Slushie
This drink reminded me of Kern’s Mango Nectar – extremely sweet, but not artificial-tasting, like you took the absolute ripest mangoes you could find and blended it into a juice. The small mango chunks in the drink gave it a nice texture, and having fruit always makes me feel healthier than I actually am.
If you’re not quite sold on boba yet, this may be a good drink for you to start with. Think of it as Jamba Juice, but with more chewing involved.
Happy Lemon ~ Black Tea with Salted Cheese
This drink gets a bit technical. Do not use a straw or try to mix the foam into the beverage, instructions on the wall at Happy Lemon said. Instead, drink directly from the cup and tilt it at a 45-degree angle. Why? So you can taste the thick layer of “salted cheese” that sits on top of the drink while drinking the black tea layer underneath.
If you’re balking at the thought of cheese in your boba tea, do not fear – it’s not actually cheese. It has the consistency of a slightly denser whipped cream, with some salt to complement the sweet tea.
Happy Lemon always delivers. Their tea flavor is always on point and they’ve made “salted cheese tea” their own.
85C Bakery (Sky Pkwy) ~ Boba Milk Tea
Bread. The sweet, sweet smell of bread. 85C is known for its breads, with names like “Mangotale” and “Boroh Danish,” but it’s actually one of my favorite boba places for their fruit teas. Their milk tea was solid but not a standout. Combined with a tender, chewy boba and hot and cold options, 85C Bakery is kind to your taste buds and great for any weather.
As a frequent boba drinker, I would like to note that 85C does extremely well with its fruit teas — my personal favorite is the King Grapefruit Green Tea. An entire grapefruit is juiced and placed into this refreshing beverage.
Tea 18 ~ Okinawa Milk Tea
This is the perfect drink for people who enjoy the smell of coffee, but don’t actually like to drink coffee. The rich flavor of Okinawa Milk Tea comes from a special roasted brown sugar, although it might not be for everyone. One employee told me Tea 18 specialized in milk teas more so than fruit teas, though their full menu included premium teas, cheese foam teas and fresh milk as well.
Tapioca Express ~ Fresh Avocado Snowbubble
Skyrocketing avocado prices aren’t stopping this boba shop from making its signature drink, the avocado snowbubble. It’s smooth, creamy, and made with real avocado (really, I watched them scoop it straight into the blender). One of the employees noted this was the drink that most people came to Tapioca Express for. I found myself enjoying the smoothie a lot more than I thought I would – the sweetened avocado taste was quite pleasant. Even after being in the fridge for several hours, the consistency of the drink did not spoil.
Sharetea ~ Classic Pearl Black Milk Tea
Another chain store, Sharetea opened in Taiwan in 1992 and is now has over 450 stores in 18 countries, according to their website. Their menu, though a little smaller than some bubble tea shops, has a bit of everything – classic milk teas, chocolate and coffee-flavored drinks, fruit teas, even an Oreo-flavored drink for people looking for something less traditional.
Sharetea’s classic pearl black milk tea is a solid choice if you’re just looking for a standard milk tea. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous (and hungry), try the QQ Happy Family Milk Tea, which has grass jelly, egg pudding, boba and red bean toppings.
Gong Cha ~ Earl Grey 3J
Earl grey: you either love it or hate it. This milk tea definitely tasted of the strong, perfumed scent of bergamot oil that is used to flavor black tea, though the flavor combined with the herbal grass jelly topping was a bit odd. It tasted a little soapy. The drink is dubbed “Earl Grey 3J” because of its three toppings: boba, egg pudding and grass jelly.
Tealicious ~ Signature Tea (Jasmine Tea with fruit)
Tealicious lives up to its name. It’s delicious. The most expensive drink out of the pack, it’s made with loads of real fruit: blueberries, watermelon, pineapple, oranges and grapefruit. I appreciate a good strong tea flavor that isn’t too bitter, and this drink hits the mark perfectly. The only thing that dragged this drink down is the boba, which was far too mushy.
i-Tea (Freeport Blvd) ~ Signature Boba Milk Tea
i-Tea’s milk tea was truly average, earning 2.5 on both flavor and toppings. However, it did extremely well for a shop that has a full menu with complex items like Singapore noodles, roasted duck egg noodle soup and salt and paper pork belly. The Stockton location even has ramen. The Freeport location, which we used for this tasting, features karaoke rooms well, making it one-stop shopping for dinner, boba and entertainment.
Raretea ~ Strawberry 2.0
This drink had potential. Like Tealicious and E Tea’s drinks, Strawberry 2.0 had real strawberry in it. I enjoyed the texture of the fruit chunks and seeds; however, it was way too sweet. The amount of sugar in this drink prevented the natural strawberry flavor from coming through, ruining the point of having real fruit in it. The boba was decent but a bit too mushy.
T4 (16th St) ~ Snowglobe Milk Tea
Squeaky! The toppings, or more specifically, the crystal boba, have a squeaky texture when you chew them. Made from agar, the translucent bobas have a bouncy texture that is very different from regular boba. I would suggest asking for a small sample before ordering a drink with crystal boba, as it might not be for everyone. The milk tea itself was very subpar, with the distinct artificial flavor of a drink made from powdered milk tea.
Quickly (16th St) ~ Bubble Milk Tea
Unfortunately, Quickly is a chain that does not have the greatest reputation. Their milk tea was subpar, with average boba pearls. The only upside is they have a huge variety of drinks that might cater to some nontraditional boba drinkers, such as the green apple snow or slushies. They also serve trendy bubble waffles and a large range of snacks like popcorn chicken, lumpia, fried sesame ball and chicken wings.
Boba Cafe ~ Tapioca Milk Tea
Again, the milk tea was unimpressive. However, Boba Cafe does boast an impressively large assortment of food dishes on their menu, from noodles and rice dishes to dumplings and braised meats. They serve Chinese-style breakfast items and typical boba shop snacks like popcorn chicken, fish balls, and fried tofu.
Cool Tea Bar ~ Grass Jelly Roasted Milk Tea
The milk tea at Cool Tea Bar was better than the two ranked above it with a roasted coffee-like flavor, but for me, there’s nothing more disappointing than bad grass jelly. As someone who loves the distinct herbal flavor of grass jelly, Cool Tea Bar’s flavorless jelly was a huge letdown.
Tbaar ~ Tbaar Milk Black Tea
Like the last few milk teas, Tbaar’s bubble milk black tea was unremarkable. The boba was extremely mushy. Based on their menu, however, it seems like their fresh juices and smoothies are more their specialty. Perhaps they would do well to recommend a different drink to represent their establishment.
It was hard for three reporters with different backgrounds and varying boba experiences to come to a consensus on the rankings, so here are our personal three favorite boba spots: Tealicious, Happy Lemon and Ding Tea.
Meghan Bobrowsky and Daniel Kim contributed to this report.