Where to get bubble tea in Milwaukee? A treat with Taiwanese origins
Boba or "bubble tea," is great year-round, but it's also a perfect summer drink — one with many options. In addition to choosing between green, black, oolong, and often also white or herbal tea or even a drink with no tea, people decide whether they want milk tea, a tea latte or a shake, what flavors to go for and whether they want signature "toppings" that either go on top of the tea or on the bottom before the tea is poured in.
It's the topping options that really make the bubble tea experience. The word boba stands for tapioca pearls. They are chewy, brown, glutinous balls that can be outwardly mistaken for blueberries. They are made from tapioca starch and are often slightly sweet from being soaked in brown sugar syrup. These boba go in the bottom of many traditional Taiwanese bubble teas, including brown sugar black milk teas. A barista will scoop the boba into a glass, pour tea, and then level in ice and milk.
These days, tapioca pearls share the menu with "jellies," rectangular, not round, toppings that go on the bottom of your drink and have the consistency of a firm jello. There are fruity or yogurt-filled "popping boba" smaller than tapioca pearls and burst in your mouth when you sip. Some shops also have pudding or cheese top additions, which is a layer of more firm, savory, yogurt-like cream that you can mix into your tea. Teas can be light and fruity or nutty and creamy.
Generally, boba drinkers use a big, thick straw, and the beverages are served iced, although you can get hot bubble tea.
According to Eater magazine, cassava arrived in Taiwan via Southeast Asia in the 19th century. People there already had a taste for jelly-like starch desserts. Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980’s. It’s a story of competing tea shops, and who really came up with putting tapioca pearls in tea is disputed territory.
Li-Chih Tsai, President of UW-Milwaukee’s Taiwanese Student Association, is from one of the cities that claims to have started boba tea culture in Taiwan. “So I'm originally from Taichung, Taiwan, which is the center of Taiwan,” he says. “There the boba tea [serving] restaurant is called Chen Shui Tang. There's a debate between Chen Shui Tang in Taichung and also Hanlin tea shop in Tainan. They're debating who is [the] original.”
The shops went to court in a prolonged lawsuit over bubble tea. But no one ended up with any trademarks or patents. "There's no answer for who is the original," says Tsai. "And maybe people in Taiwan don't care much. They just like boba, wherever it's from, as long as it tastes good."
And if you're wondering about the names "bubble tea" and "boba?" Well, "bubble" comes not from the additions to the tea itself but because the tea is originally hand shaken, which leaves little bubbles at the top of the tea. But since the tea comes with round tapioca pearls or popping bubbles or jellies at the bottom, it's become sort of a common misconception to think of these additions as the "bubbles" in bubble tea.
Boba now refers to tapioca pearls in particular. But, the story goes, a famous and busty Taiwanese film star ordered pearl milk tea. The pearls got nicknamed "boba," which was also slang for large breasts.
In a small kiosk in Mayfair Mall’s second story food court, Xiao Xuan Hu lays out pitchers of Thai, black, and Oolong teas lined up in a rainbow of colors. The founder and president of Bubblicious collaborated with another Asian friend living in the Midwest when they realized that it was tough to find boba in the dairy state.
They started making tapioca pearls from scratch and selling their boba teas at the Waukesha Farmers Market to a warm reception in 2016. In the years that followed, Hu had to educate the customers about bubble tea. But she’s noticed that, now, customers know exactly what they want.
“The market is booming for the past three or five years,” says Hu. “That's why Bubblicious you know, extended from one single small kiosk into 10 stores right now. And we have more coming soon.”
Originally, Hu said, customers tended to have some sort of Asian connection, like Asian heritage or cultural exposure. Now, she says customers come from a wide spectrum of ethnicities and racial backgrounds and also include people learning about bubble tea from social media, like TikTok or Instagram.
A stream of customers wandered up one Friday before the lunch hour. Nina Chesser approached Hu’s kiosk, tentatively exploring the menu. She said her daughter encouraged her to try boba. She eventually settled on a milkshake. “Do you want boba on there?” asked Hu. “A who?” responded Chesser. When Hu said “boba” again, Chesser asked, “what’s that? The bubbles?”
“Yes!” Hu answered enthusiastically.
Chesser agreed to try it, specifically tapioca pearls in the bottom of her milkshake, and Hu walked her through her first sip, puncturing the shake’s plastic airtight cover with a pointy straw and slipping the wrapper off elegantly.
What was Chesser’s verdict? “Delicious.”
There are lots of places to get boba in Milwaukee in the summer. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of shops whose primary focus is boba. Many Asian restaurants in Milwaukee also serve boba. Email the bubble tea hotline at email@example.com if you would like your favorite boba spot added to the list.
- 1956 N Farwell Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53202
- 5675 N Bayshore Dr, Glendale, WI 53217
- 1414 W Wells St, Milwaukee, WI 53233
- New one opening on Downer:
- 10708 W Oklahoma Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53227
Bubblelicious Bubble Tea Mayfair Mall and Southridge:
- Food Court Area, 2500 N Mayfair Rd, Wauwatosa, WI 53226
- Southridge 5300 S 76th St, Greendale, WI 53129
- 812 W Layton Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53221