Somehow over the last several months, I’ve left Chinatown unexplored. Bubble tea was something that came up multiple times when I searched “tea in Philadelphia,” and it led me right to Chinatown. I had no idea what bubble tea was, except that it has Taiwanese origins and involves tapioca pearls and large straws.
Most times when I go on an excursion, I bring a buddy so this time I brought my friend Abby who has been waiting in line to go on a tea adventure. It was nothing less.
Originally I planned to begin with Tea Talk, a tea house on 10thstreet, but when we arrived it was closed– literally locked up behind lime green bars. Luckily there is more than one bubble tea house in Chinatown. Tea Dó, a contemporary tea house, was only a few more blocks up 10th street. It was bustling with customers squeezing in and out with different colors and types of bubble tea.
We ordered two types of bubble tea: with milk and without milk. After a long wait (it was a very busy place) we began our teas hesitantly just outside the tea house. The idea of purposely slurping “bubbles” out of a drink was a curious concept. Each time a bubble made it up the straw it was exciting, yet terrifying. I’d look at Abby and she’d look at me and we’d giggle or gasp in surprise (clearly not caring about the people passing us by on the sidewalk).
The Thai Milk Tea was sweet and creamy, but it was a little too rich. I was hoping for something fresh, or closer to an iced tea with milk. This had the tapioca bubbles. They were squishy and a little slimy but I didn’t hate them, I was more curious than anything. Imagine gummy bears but with an outer layer of gel.
The Mango with passion fruit popping bubbles did not have milk. The bubbles were clear and burst in your mouth releasing a refreshing pop of passion fruit, complimenting the mango. This drink was a twist on traditional bubble tea, using actual bubbles instead of tapioca pearls.
Our bubble tea excursion did not end there. I had an itch to attempt making bubble tea myself so we went to an Asian grocery store, Asia Supermarket, just around the corner to buy some tapioca pearls. Though the sign outside said “Asia Supermarket,” the room inside looked like an electronic repair shop. Some people walked out with grocery bags, so we walked in and down a set of stairs and were greeted with a strong odor of seafood. Various types of sea life were in tanks, and I think they made eye contact with Abby.
I was grateful that we walked in with our bubble tea to show the cashier the tapioca pearls I was looking for because she did not speak much English. We did not linger much longer after I found the pearls but I might return to browse their tea aisle, which was packed. It was a major change in atmosphere but it was refreshing to be in an environment that made me think twice about how to communicate.