An Exploration of Boba
Seattle may be known for its coffee, but we have welcomed another caffeine kick in the Emerald City with a cult following: Boba Tea.
When I left my small hometown in Eastern Washington to live in Seattle, I landed in the midst of a city rich in culture and opportunities. Being something of a foodie and curious at heart, my initial entry point into Seattle’s culture was an exploration of our restaurants. Through a recommendation I started at Din Tai Fung, a lively and vastly praised Taiwanese restaurant near the University of Washington. It was there that I first tried a drink that I had glimpsed swirling around throughout the city: boba tea.
Boba tea, also called “bubble tea”, is a popular Taiwanese drink with two key ingredients: tea and toppings. “Toppings” refer to additions like sweetened tapioca pearls (boba), popping lychee bubbles, cubed aloe or fruit jellies, pudding, or even ice cream. The tea I had at Din Tai Fung was a classic black milk tea with tapioca, served on ice. However, the basic tea + topping formula can be varied by different teas, flavors (from brown sugar to mango), added milk or non-dairy creamers, sweetness level (ranging from 0-100%), and temperature. The result is a highly customizable and always delicious treat.
Although Taiwanese boba tea has spread all around the globe, Seattle is fortunate enough to host a multitude of show-stopping tea shops which have in turn built a hefty population of loyal boba lovers. As a newly initiated member of the fandom, I was eager to try more. Below, you’ll find my path through some of my favorite boba shops, all the while wandering through the Chinatown-International, University, and Downtown districts of Seattle.
Whether you’re a long-time boba-believer or a humble bubble-beginner, I always recommend your quest begin in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, nestled between Pioneer Square and the stadiums of SODO. Here you will find a vibrant community of eateries, museums, family-run stores, and tea shops speckled with lanterns, perching Asian figurines, and ornate design.
From the Chinatown-International District Station, walk a few blocks east to Young Tea, a quiet tea shop known for boba that emphasizes the complex tastes of a quality brewed tea. Here my drink of choice is the Pu-erh Black Sugar Milk Tea with tapioca pearls, a drink that mixes the silky-smooth flavors of black sugar and milk with the gentle earthiness of Pu-erh black tea.
If you have an afternoon, stick around the district and explore Uwajimaya — a large shopping hub complete with imported delicacies, an Asian food court, bookstore, and gift market. Then, check out the Grand Pavilion and dragon mural at Hing Hay Park before peeking into the Wing Luke Museum or the Seattle Pinball Museum.
Closely following the Chinatown-International District in terms of boba lovers is the U-District, which surrounds the University of Washington. Stroll through campus and you’ll likely see students toting cups of tea recognizable by the signature extra-wide boba straws. To find the origin, head over to University Way Avenue, affectionately doted “The Ave” by Huskies and locals alike.
On the Ave is an abundance of cheap eats — if you are hungry, stop into Sizzle-N-Crunch for a Banh Mi or Aladdin’s Gyro-Cery for their famous “Aladdin-Fries” (imagine dumping a gyro atop a plate of fresh fries. It will be your next guilty pleasure).
Or if you only have eyes for boba tea, head straight into one of the 10 tea shops within 10 minutes of the campus. While Oasis Tea Zone, Ding Tea, and Chatime are all great options, Sharetea on 45th Street is my tea MVP. Here, I love a sweet and nutty Taro Pearl Milk Tea or a Wintermelon and Aloe Tea for something light and fruity. Sharetea runs sweeter, so if you are looking for something more savory, try setting your sweetness level down a notch.
Looking for a second wind after a day of shopping through Westlake Center and Pacific Place? Not to fear — right in the center of the plaza you can usually find Seattle’s first boba tea food truck, Dreamy Drinks. (They also park at Seattle events on occasion, so don’t forget to check their schedule here before you plan a visit!)
Even without the line of fans, the pastel purple truck is hard to miss. The unicorn logo is a background to countless photos and the drinks are as dreamy as advertised. If you want to jump on the bandwagon, the Taro Smoothie with boba is a delicious addition to an aesthetic purple snapshot. If you aren’t feeling a smoothie, the Classic Milk Tea with warm gooey boba is a fan favorite, hot or cold.
Once you’re feeling refreshed, consider taking your tea on a quick trek down to nearby Pike Place Market for a stroll among freshly-cut flowers, street buskers, and endless food and produce vendors.
Although I have now lived in the Emerald City for several years, my path of discovery is continuous. I still spend many days exploring, sometimes drinking teas or tasting new foods, while other days trying to listen and learn from other corners of the city. Beyond my boba recommendations is one overarching nugget of advice for your time in Seattle: Let your curiosity propel you into something new.
Good luck, and cheers!
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