Growing up in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond neighborhood, boba shops were the place to go after school for sweetened milk tea or fruit slushies that had generous helpings of soft tapioca balls piled at the bottom of a clear plastic cup, to be slurped up through those colorful wide straws. The drink menus were seemingly endless and they often offered snacks like popcorn chicken, which were the ideal savory counterbalance to the inevitable liquid sugar rush from drinking boba.
Decades later, when I moved to the East Bay, I was delighted to find there are no shortage of boba shops — from student-frequented spots around UC Berkeley to family-owned businesses tucked into the shopping centers of Oakland’s Chinatown.
Since my youth boba has evolved into a much trendier affair. These days, boba drinks may feature handcrafted matcha green tea, contain jellies or puddings, or have a thick layer of salty creama (a heavy whipped cream topping; some are cheese flavored) gracing the top that is meant to slowly blend into the tea below.
For those looking to find the best boba drinks around Berkeley and Oakland, here are five places that will not disappoint, whether you are looking for a beverage with all the elaborate add-ons or a more traditional milk tea that reminds you of simpler times.
Asha Tea House
Situated on University Avenue in downtown Berkeley, Asha Tea House specializes in handcrafted tea for its boba drinks. Asha translates to “someone who enjoys life” in Taiwanese, and the spacious layout of the teahouse with plenty of communal counters and individual tables creates a welcoming environment for customers to sit down and stay a while.
The menu prides itself on all-natural, sustainable teas and offers seasonal fruit teas, milk teas and matcha drinks that can have homebrewed boba or grass jelly (a gelatinous dessert common in Asia with a slightly smoky flavor) added to them for an extra cost. One of Asha’s most popular drinks is the Matcha Latte, which is a blend of milk (or a dairy substitute), hand-whisked matcha tea, and a generous portion of warm, lightly sweetened tapioca at the bottom. Fruit-based teas like the strawberry black tea is made with real strawberries and is ideal for those looking for a lighter drink. For a more traditional milk tea, the Hong Kong Milk Tea is a delicious blend of Asha’s house black tea with housemade condensed milk and half and half. Asha Tea House, 2086 University Ave. (between Milvia and Shattuck), Berkeley
The Sweet Booth
One of the first things you notice when you enter this family-run boba shop is the extensive handwritten menu in both Chinese and English offering everything from milk teas to pearl drinks that feature real fruit. The Sweet Booth prides itself on not using any powder or artificial flavors for its boba drinks and all of its ingredients are fresh. The man behind the counter was patient when taking my order and answered all my questions about the various choices. Unlike the newer boba chains in the area, this is a Chinatown institution and it shows. There are only a few tables, so grab your drink and head out to the benches in the courtyard for some prime people watching.
A refreshing drink is the Watermelon Smoothie Pearl. It’s made by blending perfectly ripened watermelon and contains some of the softest boba in the East Bay. And once you try Sweet Booth’s sweetened Taro Pearl drink, made with fresh bits of taro, you will never again go back to drinking artificially flavored purple taro paste boba drinks. The added coconut ice cream gives it a good dose of creaminess and sweetness. Note, the Sweet Booth is cash only. The Sweet Booth, 388 9th St., Suite 155, (between Webster and Franklin), Oakland
Located at the edge of UC Berkeley’s campus, U-Cha is a popular spot with students. It has a dizzying number of drink options, from the classic milk teas to the fruit-centric green teas. The clean minimalistic interior has a few tables, but often you are better off getting your drink to go. One of the highlights of this tiny spot is the variety of add-ins it offers, from grass jelly (a slightly bitter black-hued jelly made from a Chinese herb) to aloe vera, just to name a few.
If you are overwhelmed from the sheer amount of choices, use the top seller menu as a guide. A good place to start is with the Passion Fruit Green Tea with Ai Yu Jelly. The fruity tea complements the soft jelly, made from the seeds of Taiwanese figs, and works well for those who want a dairy-free option. U-Cha’s signature Iced Fresh Milk Drink with Pearl is a great alternative if you want something creamy without tea in it. For an option with health benefits, the Lemon Yakult is a tangy yogurt drink that contains probiotics and isn’t too sweet. Sugar and ice levels can be adjusted for selected drinks. U-Cha, 2199 Bancroft Way (between Shattuck and Fulton), Berkeley
Sharetea is another spot that is steps away from the Cal campus and has a variety of choices, from milk teas to creamas. There are a few tables here; depending on the time of day, you may be able to grab one. The open doors and windows give the interior plenty of fresh air and creates a casual, friendly atmosphere for customers.
The Taro Ice Blended with boba is a smooth and creamy drink that is reminiscent of ice cream; it contains non-dairy creamer (a common substitute for their dairy-based drinks except for their fresh milk drinks), and plenty of sugar. It usually comes with pudding (a milk-based dessert with a caramel flavor), but you can always trade it in for boba if pudding is not your thing. Be warned: the drink is supersized compared to most boba places and can be a meal in itself. For a less gut-busting option, the Mango Green Tea Creama, is a solid choice and has a thick layer of salty creama on the top that blends well with the sweetness of the tea. The Matcha Red Bean Milk Tea is a wise choice for those seeking an alternative to boba, with the red bean mixing effortlessly with the matcha tea. The sugar and ice levels for most drinks are customizable. Sharetea, 2440 Bancroft Way (between Telegraph and Dana), Berkeley
i-Tea is located on the outer perimeter of the Pacific Renaissance Plaza in Oakland’s Chinatown. The first sign that you know you are in the right place is that you will often see a line spilling out of its tiny interior. A diverse crowd frequents this spot, from elderly neighborhood locals needing a pick-me-up to groups of teenagers getting their boba fix. This spot is only for to-go orders and provides bags to transport your precious cargo.
For those who prefer to swap out boba for jelly, the Mango Crystal is a mango smoothie with a substantial layer of clear jelly at the bottom. The slightly sweetened clear jelly complements the much sweeter mango flavor and creates a good balance between the two. A large helping of fresh mango chunks on the top is a welcome bonus and adds texture to the overall drink. For a drink that will transport you to the tropics, the guava tea is a lighter option and is combined with egg pudding instead of boba, which makes for a memorable combination. i-Tea, 388 9th St., Suite 125A (between Webster and Franklin), Oakland
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