So many boba tea cafes are bubbling back to business in the Greater New Orleans area as we recover from Hurricane Ida and deal with COVID-19.
What even is Boba/Bubble Tea?
There is some debate on the origin of this refreshing drink, as both the Chun Shui Tang and the Han Lin Tea Room both claim to have invented it in Taiwan during the 1980s. Taiwanese immigrants made the drink accessible from there; but boba tea truly soared in its popularity with social media in the mid-2000s. Classic boba tea consists of four main components: tapioca pearls, tea (usually black tea), milk, and a sweetener, traditionally a brown sugar syrup.
What’s in a name (and the tea)?
In Cantonese and Mandarin, the word boba means a combination of “Big” and “Bubbles” (but fun fact: it’s a slang equivalent of saying “big boobies/best boobies”; which is why in its country of origin, Taiwan, the drink is more commonly referred to as zhenzhu meaning pearl milk tea). The name is self-explanatory because of the way the chewy tapioca balls made from cassava starch and brown sugar do resemble bubbles or pearls, and the act of gently shaking your finished drink creates bubbles. Originally, this was considered more of a dessert drink for teenagers after school, but perhaps in the last decade or so has evolved into more varieties including coffee-based drinks, fruit teas, and smoothies as it gains popularity.
In my search for some of New Orleans’ finest boba tea creations, my criterion focused on locally-owned small business establishments, fresh ingredients with at least some components made in-house, with both traditional boba tea offerings as well as the creative barista-crafted, Instagram-worthy signature drinks. A warm, welcoming “hangout” environment would also be more true to an ideal, authentic boba tea experience. Additionally, since the majority of Asian restaurants in New Orleans offer boba teas as part of their drink menus, I ruled them out in lieu of focusing on establishments where boba tea was the star and not the background singer.
Here are five places that spill some of the best Tea, in every form and flavor you need it spilled:
What originated as an at-home macaron and traditional Vietnamese pastry business, French patisserie-trained owner Sammi Phuong fulfilled her dream of opening her own brick-and-mortar bubble tea cafe around December 2019. “Sweets make me so happy, I feel like I’m in a dream. I want my customers to feel like they are sharing in my dream house with me: it’s a happy house where we are surrounded by sugar and we can create anything we want!”
While my Vietnipina heart couldn’t resist indulging in fresh-out-of-the-oven, as-big-as-my-face ube rolls, Dream House Cafe prides themselves on their signature creations including the Dream House Loaded Fruit, Strawberry Rose Green Tea and their fresh milk teas. Their soy, oat and almond milks are made fresh in-house, as is their pandan-coconut ice cream. A small pastry case features individual slices of cake, as well as perhaps 5-10 seasonal flavors of macarons; and special pastry, juice, tea or cake orders can be special-ordered online or in-store.
Combining its Taiwanese roots with tru dat New Orleans sports culture, Ding Tea Nola is an excellent spot for teenagers and those trying to kill their livers with kindness, to enjoy bubble tea, Wi-Fi, a selfie swing and a Saints game. The boba base choices are more extensive than most, and feature more adventurous offerings, such as sweetened Japanese adzuki beans, egg pudding and aloe vera.
Right now, they’ve come out with specialty Fall flavors, including one that tops my list yet, the “Affy Tapple” that satisfies anyone who loves a good caramel apple. Located in the Cao Shopping Center and owned and operated by Helen-Kym Cao, the baristas are encouraged to be as creative as possible, especially to be relevant to the current season — and that includes the challenge of making pumpkin spice great again. Did I mention that they’re the only Boba Tea establishment in the city with a drive-thru?
The only boba tea cafe in New Orleans proper that meets the criterion just happens to be one of the OGs in New Orleans’ boba tea game, along with Frosty’s Cafe. Both originated on the Westbank over 10 years ago, when Thao Smith’s mother took over the original Mr. Bubbles Tea House and renamed it Mr. Bubbles Sandwich House in the Hong Kong Market. Thao and Brian Smith then opened Mr. Bubbles Cafe in 2016 and together with her mom and 6 siblings, it remains a family operation. Both are equally known for their Bánh mì (Vietnamese-style po’boys) as well as for being a traditional boba tea cafe where patrons can customize their bases, fruits and toppings.
True to the tea scene, Mr. Bubbles Cafe offers party trays of their Banh Mi/Wraps and sells Boba Tea with custom toppings by the gallon.
The layout of the cafe is inviting, and the signage featuring their top 10 signature drinks and street food-style snacks make your decisions that much easier. Their #1 seller is their Vivi Signature Fruit Tea, which is as healthy and refreshing as it sounds. Their other unique drink, Blue Galaxy, registered as a layered mocktail, which combined with the light and crispy fried shrimp and the takoyaki (round, savory mini pancakes with a piece of octopus inside and sprinkled with flaked bonito and seaweed), gave off some kawaii happy hour vibes. This is a very family-friendly atmosphere right across from the Lakeside Mall, which satisfies the sweet, the savory and anyone who loves plushies and accessorizing.
Launched around April 2021, this Kenner gem makes their boba in-house daily, and is a perfect representation of a cross-cultural shared experience. The owners, Ricardo Alvarez and Bianca Aguilar, both hail from Honduras and took the time to learn how to make the boba from their Taiwanese friends, and brought that background into the community they were raised in. “When we first tried boba tea, we knew it was a unique experience and that probably none of our families or friends have tried something like this before. We wanted to not only make this treat more accessible to our neighborhood, we wanted to have a place where we can be creative, play board games, relax and have fun.”
The city of Kenner boasts the largest concentration of Latinos in Louisiana, 25% of whom are Honduran Spanish-speaking residents. Signage in the front of the cafe features an ever-changing blackboard with their specials and the history and beneficial nutrition of boba tea. One of the signature staples of their menu include a fusion of a mangonada boba tea. So what’s Ricardo’s favorite flavor? “I really love our pina colada boba tea! I’m very proud of this creation, and think it’s the best in the city!”