Boba is an iconic drink of Asian cuisine. Made from tapioca, the chewy pearls have come a long way from their Taiwanese origins. Today, they have appeared in drinks enjoyed the world over. If the crowds at Phoenix Night Market's debut weekend are any indication, it's that certain Asian culinary influences have hit the mainstream here in the Valley. One of the great things this has meant is good boba.
Here's a look at how five worthwhile spots in metro Phoenix do boba. We've also peered behind the tapioca and sugar to the stories of the men and women who make the drinks.
914 East Camelback Road, #4B
801 North Second Street
Before the era of Instagram foodies, Tony Ce, owner of Snoh Ice Shavery, remembers no one knowing what his product was. He served Taiwanese snow ice, a fluffy cross between ice cream and shaved ice.
Snoh, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, fuses Asian flavors like matcha and Thai tea with American classics, like graham crackers and Fruity Pebbles. The result is dessert that invokes nostalgia no matter where you’re from.
Snow ice and boba were common when Ce was growing up in Southern California. But in SoCal, foot traffic and a large Asian population alone were enough to keep businesses like Snoh running. Phoenix has neither. What we had here was an underground art community. And it was the connections built in the community, Ce says, that helped make Snoh a success.
"No matter what trends are going on, we're just mixing Asian desserts with American culture and making something good," Ce says.
725 South Rural Road #117, Tempe
When Ting Chen, co-owner of Tea Swirl, was an international student studying electrical engineering at Arizona State University, there were only three tea shops in the area. None of them tasted like home. That's why when he opened Tea Swirl, Chen found it imperative to import every ingredient, from boba to honey, from Taiwan.
For many flavors popular in the streets of Taiwan, Tea Swirl aims to serve an identical version. Chen keeps tabs on trends and expands his menu accordingly, the most recent add being brown sugar boba and spirit milk tea.
"We try to make it easier with samples," he says. "Or describing it differently – people have said that our Okinawa milk tea tastes like Captain Crunch, or our Galaxy drink tastes like a Popsicle."
1702 West Camelback Road
Arizona native, Tho Ly, owner of Milk Run, originally worked as a microbiologist. "I was used to being in a lab for hours," Ly says. "But now, I make my own rules, which is the most rewarding thing.”
Having left a life of protocol behind, Ly stays in touch with his Asian-American roots by turning traditional flavors into new creations. At Milk Run, boba is a welcome addition to house-made Sriracha ice cream or to a milk tea float, a colorful milk tea served in a milk bottle, topped with ice cream and Pocky (chocolate-dipped biscuit).
No flavor is off limits for Ly: Sugar cane, jackfruit, soursop, and even durian can have a place.
3126 South Mill Avenue, Tempe
According to Gina Wu, it takes three different filters to make Arizona groundwater taste like Taiwanese mountain water. Wu, co-owner of Da Yung's Tea, uses a three-filter process to make fresh teas every morning.
Simplicity is central at Da Yung’s. Specialty drinks focus less on trends and more on pairing light teas with the freshest fruit of the season. And with menu items like Orange Green Tea, what you order is what you get.
When Wu was an international student at the University of Arizona, the only boba drinks she could find consisted of powder and syrup. Now, when Wu, a mother herself, sees families come in, she's happy that she can provide them with something healthy without compromising taste.
550 West McDowell Road
Eric Caraig used to work in the fashion industry in California before starting Pop 'N Tea with two of his friends. Their attention to detail shows up in everything from their crisp, modern design to the cocktail-like aesthetics of their drinks.
Pop ‘N Tea uses organic teas on tap, which can be sweetened to taste. If you order one of their sweet teas, expect to sip some freshly chopped fruits along with bright green matcha-infused boba.
"We've been called the Urban Outfitters of boba places," Caraig says.
Artisanal additions aside, Caraig and his team don't want to be solely known for being Cali transplants. Instead, they want Pop 'N Tea to promote a lifestyle that is uniquely Phoenician – and looks great at any angle.