My only boba tea experience is a bit embarrassing. I was 16 years old and hanging out at the mall—as one does when they live in the middle of nowhere, Alabama, and have no social life—and I’d just purchased yet another Nine Inch Nails CD from Sam Goody (I’m really dating myself, here), when I saw a new kiosk next to the escalator: Bubble Tea. I was instantly intrigued by the vibrant colors of these new beverages; they appeared to have little orbs of pure joy at the bottom of the cup. How fantastically exotic! I thought to my 16-year-old self, I must have one! So I ordered a tea, popped the straw in the cup, and sipped the sticky sweet drink into my eager face, ready to experience this new world. But at the end of my sip was the surprise: that colorful, mushy orb.
It was not good.
Dear reader, 16-year-old Mollie was not prepared for bubble tea. Was I supposed to chew the bubbles? What were “bubbles,” anyway? Why were they so slimy? Are we sure it wasn’t really boogers in the bottom of that tea? They looked like boogers. So into the garbage it went, and so swiftly, too, did I place “bubble tea” into the “Nonsense” folder in my brain, right next to chicken liver and boy bands.
However, you’ll be happy to know that with age comes wisdom, and I’m now happy to say I have a great sense of adventure and curiosity when it comes to culinary pursuit. So when I heard that there was a new boba tea joint near my workplace, I was pretty excited to try it again, and maybe the mysterious appeal of bubble tea would finally reveal itself to me.
Located on Fair Oaks and Howe Avenue next to Bandera, Pearls Boba is a refreshing addition to the part of town populated primarily by Sac State students, Kaiser employees and commuters trying to get to the freeway. The parking is bountiful, and the first thing you notice about Pearls is the large side patio with inviting chairs, seeming like the kind of place that would welcome groups and readers alike. The inside is much the same—with cozy lighting, charming wooden tables and electrical outlets aplenty, Pearls is set up much like a coffee shop. As it turns out, that’s exactly what the owner had in mind.
Grace Lee, along with her partner Nanlin Chiang, aren’t your typical café owners; they’re oral surgeons. A Sacramento native, Lee said she lived in the neighborhood and was irritated that she couldn’t find quality boba within a reasonable distance. And it’s true—a quick Yelp search for “boba tea” in Sacramento leaves one with few options. We love our craft coffee in this town, but what do we really know about boba tea?
Also known as “boba juice,” “bubble milk tea” or “pearl milk tea,” boba tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. It traditionally consists of a tea base shaken or mixed with milk or fruits, then fancied-up with tapioca balls made from the cassava root. There are countless flavor combinations to choose from, and the quality of the tea base and ingredients speaks volumes about what make a darn good cup of boba.
“I’ve tasted hundreds of teas … and after we selected which ones to use, I modified the recipes to what I think is healthier,” said Lee, noticing that a lot of other boba shops used high fructose syrups to sweeten their teas, whereas she uses a syrup made from raw sugar. They make their pearls hourly to ensure freshness, and their imported teas are loose-leaf and processed through a machine that is, in essence, an espresso machine just for tea. They also have a regular espresso machine for coffee drinks; Lee teamed up with local roaster Terranova Coffee to offer a curated selection of lattes, Americanos and mochas.
As a newbie to the boba tea world, I found the menu to be a bit overwhelming (boba and toppings, oh my!), so I asked Lee to tell me a bit about their pairings and what they were excited to offer.
“We have some unique drinks that nobody has. One of them is a rice drink … it’s brewed for about 24 hours. It really brings out the flavor of rice and pairs really well with boba,” she says, mentioning that it was similar to a traditional Korean rice drink as well as the Mexican horchata. In addition to the traditional milk and premium teas, they also have “Dr. Smoothies” and “Icy” drinks made with fresh fruits.
Pearls also offers a unique shaved ice menu with a variety of toppings (the first 3 are included!), from Oreo cookies, to pudding, to mochi, to red bean. In fact, I’m a bit ashamed to say that I ate a large portion of the taro-flavored shaved ice topped with almonds, mochi and red beans, so fast that I gave myself a good ol’ fashioned brain freeze. Lee said that she loved their avocado shaved ice, but they didn’t have it that day. But I wasn’t worried; it’s clear that it’s the kind of place you can see yourself visiting often, each time trying something new. Lee is hoping it will catch on, much like the craft coffee scene in Sacramento. Temple Coffee is a mere few blocks down the street, after all.
“We really tried to make it a nice place to hang out,” she said, “I want it to be young … I want it to be a high-energy kind of place.” And if it’s caffeine you’re seeking, they’ve got you covered. The serving sizes are quite large, and after trying their traditional chai tea (made in-house), I have to say that these teas are no joke; they pack a punch! They have something for everyone, whether you prefer fruity or more savory, they have you covered. In addition to the rice boba (my favorite of all that I sampled), I also tried the osmanthus tea with a splash of mango (the gal at the counter said it was her favorite)—and I’ll just say it tasted like summer: light, fruity and a dash of whimsy. I’ll give it a gold star. And in case you were wondering, I found the texture of the boba to be a bit more charming at 30 than at 16. Better late than never, right?
If you want to dive into the world of boba tea, where should you start? Keep it simple. “Our most popular drink is the Thai milk tea; people are very familiar with that … and I find that with this business, people tend to order the same things,” she said. I admitted that I am very guilty of this with coffee. Boba is so versatile, Lee explains, because you can add so many different things to change the flavors and have fun with it.
Fun is what Pearls hopes to bring to Sacramento, and Lee is enjoying the ride. She imagines a future where more shops are open that support the local scene, and are less franchise-based, comparing it to Starbucks and Temple Coffee. “I want to be like the Temple of boba. We’re more local and we have our own style,” she said. Her niece designed their logo and she said that her kids enjoy helping her out with the shop. Moving forward, she hopes to offer more things like macaroons and other small bites that compliment tea—she’d bake them herself because, like seeking out a fine coffee or tea shop in a city, it brings her great joy.
So perhaps Pearls has convinced me take boba tea out of that pesky filing cabinet in my brain marked “Nonsense.” I can’t say the same about chicken liver or boy bands. Yet.
Pearls Boba is located at 2264 Fair Oaks Boulevard, Sacramento. Their business hours are Sunday–Thursday, 11 a.m.–9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.–10 p.m.