When I wrote about boba (or bubble tea) in 2016, it was a newish trend in Sonoma County. Now, it is slowly but surely becoming part of the zeitgeist.
Cold tea studded with chewy tapioca balls (boba) originated in Taiwan as an extension of traditional tea shops. Since its inception in the early 1980s, it has become a runaway success, popping up worldwide. In the US, Millennials and Gen Z have embraced the import, sold in a dizzying array of flavors and colors.
If you haven’t tried bubble tea yet, here’s the skinny: Take one part green, herbal or black tea; add a fruit flavoring (and possibly milk), then add the boba — small chewy bits at the bottom of the drink, usually made of honey, gelatin or tapioca with roughly the consistency of a gummy bear.
The liquid is usually mixed with ice and sealed with a thin plastic lid (so you don’t spill it). A wide straw is poked through the top, and you suck up both the tea and the boba through the straw (note: take it slow or you could choke, which is a true sign of a newbie).
Once you’ve got the hang of it, expand your horizons to more traditional flavors like red bean, taro, sour plum, rose or lychee. Some are sweeter, others less so, and most boba shops allow you to control how sweet you like your drink. Many also offer a variety of small snacks, from waffles and fried octopus to simple sandwiches and candy.
Though boba is not for everyone, it’s worth discovering, especially with so many shops to choose from in Sonoma County. Hint: Many bubble tea shops have delivery options, so check the websites or your mobile food delivery app. Here are a few favorites.
Quickly: This California-based chain was one of the first to bring bubble tea to Sonoma County (Surf City Squeeze at Santa Rosa Plaza also had it way back in the day). It’s become a little run-down inside, I’ll be honest, but it remains an SRJC favorite. 1880 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, quicklyusa.com.
T4Tea for U: A great lunch spot, T4Tea offers poke bowls and bubble tea. Classic Taiwanese flavors like winter melon and rose aloe are good choices. 2280 Mendocino Ave., Suite 3c, Santa Rosa, thet4.com.
ShareTea at Simply Vietnam Express: It is a little embarrassing just how often I stop by this Cleveland Avenue spot for Vietnamese iced coffee and/or bubble tea. This locally-owned Vietnamese restaurant offers ShareTea, a large Taiwanese chain. Here, you can pick your sweetness, flavorings and boba — from super sweet kiwi to a more Americanized coffee and ice cream version. This is the most assembly-lined process, though it can be time-consuming for the staff behind the counter during busy lunch and dinner hours. 3881 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa
Zero&: This is the ultimate bubble tea destination. Most are made with natural fruit and fruit juice (the Strawberry Marble has half a pound of strawberries). Two Grapeful is almost too pretty to eat, a luxuriously layered beauty with fresh grapes, jasmine green tea, grape jelly and sea salt cheese foam — think savory whipped cream, not cheddar. Ube Taro is another winner. 1071 Santa Rosa Plaza, Suite 1021A, Santa Rosa, zeroand.com.
Teaspoon: It is a clean, ultra-modern bubble tea shop where you’ll find groups of giggling teens, milk teas and other drinks. My fave: The Ladybug with passionfruit and green tea. 2060 Santa Rosa Ave., Suite B1, Santa Rosa, teaspoonlife.com.
Bubbles Boba Tea: One of the few locally-owned (as opposed to franchised) bubble tea locations. It’s kawaii to the extreme, with adorable gifts and a sad kitty face on the lid of your drink. My fave is the Chili Mango with lime, mango, a honey-Taijin swirl and mango popping boba. Also, try the White Tiger featuring vanilla milk with brown sugar stripes, crunch creme brulee topping, and brown sugar boba. 954 Gravenstein Highway S., Sebastopol, bubblesbobatea.com.
Savor Vietnamese: A stupendous variety of milk tea, slushies and fruit tea boba. Paradise Lime has pineapple bits, lime juice and black or green tea. I like rainbow jellies with fruit teas. While you’re there, pick up a noodle bowl or one of their excellent banh mi. 4275 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa; newly-opened in Windsor at 8970 Brooks Road S., savorvietnamesecuisine.com.
ThirsTea: A giant selection of teas in numerous flavor combinations. Passionfruit slush with grass jelly is a personal favorite. Excellent banh mi, as well. 6585 Commerce Blvd., Rohnert Park.
Teaside Bubble Tea: The former Sunny’s Boba in downtown Santa Rosa has become Teaside — though it looks pretty much the same inside and is still locally owned. They have tons of fun flavors, like the Pink Flirty (lychee rose slushie), the Ying-Yang with vanilla and chocolate black milk tea, or the East Meets West (mango lychee and jasmine iced tea with lychee and mango jellies). 519 Fourth St., Santa Rosa (available for delivery on DoorDash).
Sweet Straw Sonoma: Napa-based bubble tea company Sweet Straw is totally Instagram camera-ready. The narrow shop has an ivy wall with neon lettering saying “Boba yes, you maybe” where you can pose with your Thai iced tea with tapioca pearls. 201 W. Napa St., Suite 27, Sonoma. Also at 2552 Jefferson in Napa, sweetstrawteabar.square.site