[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t goes by many names: bubbles, boba, tapioca, pearls. Call it what you want, chances are you know what it is. Originally from Taiwan, bubble tea emerged in the late 1980s but has gained huge amounts of popularity in recent years. Houston, with its diverse population, was no stranger to the tapioca craze, and it is currently home to over 100 teahouses, according to Yelp. Tapioca, for those unaware, is a starch extracted from cassava root, which is cooked and left in a syrup mixture until the chewy, gummy-bear-like balls are ready to be served.
So, if you’re not already familiar with this bubble-filled beverage, I highly recommend you try it as soon as possible. Often times when I crave a beverage, I’m forced to decide between something from Starbucks or a smoothie, but bubble tea provides some much needed variety. As such, I’ve reviewed three different bubble tea locations, ordering two basic drink staples in an attempt to maintain a baseline for comparison: one milk tea with tapioca and one Thai tea with tapioca.
Nu Ice and Drinks
Address: 5901 Westheimer Road
Hours: 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday
11 a.m. – 11:30 p.m. Friday
12 a.m. – 11:30 p.m. Saturday
12 a.m. – 11 a.m. Sunday
Situated in a strip center on the corner of Westheimer and Fountain View, there’s definitely more to Nu Ice than the typical strip center façade suggests. Stepping into the café, one will immediately notice the recently renovated, modern design that shapes its fun atmosphere. Intimate seating arrangements line the wall opposite the register, in addition to booths and tables for larger parties. It’s a place to hang out, take a few minutes to enjoy your drink, and play a few of the board games they have. Customers talk with friends and family here rarely grabbing their drink and leaving.
The employees are consistently kind and energetic, and also maintain a level of friendliness that doesn’t border annoying. The menu is easy-to-read, and orders arrive quickly.
Nu, which has franchises in Taiwan, California, and Texas, boasts Taiwanese shaved ice, and rightfully so. The shaved ice looks like thinly sliced pieces of tree bark and they melt in your mouth. It’s served as a multi-layered, high-standing tower and is complemented by add-ons such as marshmallows or sprinkles. Be sure to pair the shaved ice—that comes in a variety of flavors like Nutella or green tea—with your drink.
With regards to the drinks, the milk tea was very light and not thick or creamy at all, which is perfect in my book. It’s not too sweet, either: a simple herbal tea with milk and just a little sugar. I’d recommend getting the milk tea here. Milk tea anywhere is a good introduction to bubble tea and a safe bet overall, and at Nu specifically, it’s made to perfection.
Word of advice about Thai tea: don’t be alarmed by its bright orange color, given by the orange blossom water. It’s more of a peachy orange color at Nu and tastes like the regular milk tea with the slightest, almost forgettable hint of fruit. Only order it after you’ve tried the milk tea at least once if you’re feeling adventurous.
The boba pearls were on the smaller side, so be advised in case one shoots up your straw at supersonic speeds. Despite their small size, Nu is generous with the amount of pearls, making the drink with around four layers of balls.
Happy Tea House (The Teahouse)
Address: 8383 Westheimer Rd
Hours: 10 a.m. – 2:00 a.m. Sunday through Thursday,
10 a.m. – 4:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday
If for whatever reason you wake up at 3 a.m. on the weekend and realize you have a painful desire for bubble tea, don’t worry because Happy Tea House is there for you. Shockingly, they stay open till 4:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, making them the place to go after a long night out or an extra early morning.
Once inside, you’ll realize how big—maybe unnecessarily—the café is. It’s got enough seating for maybe 70 people, including standard chairs and tables, couches, lounge chairs, and round tables. The furniture, though, is a little worse for wear: the leather on the chairs grows thin and continues to crack. It’s obvious there was a real attempt in designing and decorating the interior of the restaurant, but frankly, it doesn’t create an inviting environment I want to stay in for too long. The vibe here is different than Nu: of the eight or so different parties sitting at 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, two were working, studying with textbooks sprawled across their table and typing on their laptops. It seemed like a Starbucks for bubble tea.
They don’t have any milk tea here, only the slightly different variation of cream tea. I only discovered this upon my first sip, thinking I had ordered milk tea at the register. The liquid is noticeably thicker than the consistency of regular tea or water, which is understandable given the substitution of milk for cream. It’s not like a smoothie, but the cream definitely thickens the consistency. There was also a hint of sweetness in the cream tea that might warrant asking for no sweetener next time.
The Thai tea was, to be honest, not worth ordering again. The sour-fruit aftertaste was the worst part.
Happy Teahouse gives you the option to choose the size of your pearls: between baby or big. By default, they give you baby which are still larger than usual. The pearls are on the chewier side, and each tea only had around two layers of pearls.
Address: 9889 Bellaire Blvd E213
Hours: 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday
11 a.m. – 12 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Sharetea is somewhat hidden in what might be the biggest strip center I’ve ever seen. Located in Chinatown, it took me about 10 minutes once I arrived at the destination to find the spot, but it was all worth it. Upon entering, you’re greeted by a clean smell and a warm atmosphere. The slight scent of tapioca and the sound of hurried hands making drinks filled the decently-sized, L-shaped room. The menu is typographically beautiful and displays a wide range of customizable options, including the option to choose the amount of ice (a lot, regular, little) and sugar (100, 75, 50, 25, and 0 percent) you want in your drink. At 4 p.m. on a Thursday, every table at the café was filled with teenagers grabbing a drink to go or sitting at their laptops. In terms of size, it is the middle-ground between the tight space of Nu versus the huge Happy Tea House.
The milk tea here was fantastic, with the best consistency yet: very light with a hint of thickness that you could almost miss. With regards to taste, I realized the reason I enjoyed it so much was the amount of sugar I was tasting (I ordered the standard 100 percent). It’s definitely more noticeable,so for those trying to stay healthy, maybe ask for a smaller percentage of sugar.
They did not have Thai tea here, which came as a shock given the decently-sized menu. I then asked the cashier what her favorite drink was and ordered the Okinawa milk tea This drink is traditionally made with roasted brown sugar instead of the regular syrup which is what gave it a sweet kick that quickly went away. For those who don’t have an insane sugar tooth, this was a delightful balance.
Finally, the pearls. Sharetea gives Nu Ice a run for its money in terms of the amount of balls and might even edge them out. They gave four layers of pearls which had the best chewiness out of all the restaurants.
Overall, I loved Sharetea. If you live in the Kinkaid area, it’s a little ways away than the other locations (20 minutes from Kinkaid in traffic) but makes more a great outing with friends. In conclusion, if you’ve got to rush but need that boba fix, pop in to Nu Ice but otherwise, I would highly recommend Sharetea in the Chinatown/Bellaire area.