Behind the counter of The Bowl in Lynbrook, Olivia Lim operates a lab of sorts, one lined by containers of powder — non-dairy creamer, powdered taro, coconut — as well as buckets of glistening jelly in neon hues. When someone places an order for bubble tea, Lim grabs a plastic shaker and gets to work: She spoons in powdered flavors, splashes in water and a pile of ice, then shakes the entire thing for several noisy seconds.
Decanted into a slim cup of frosted plastic, one such blend is a study in layers: On bottom, inky black boba, or tapioca bubbles, are visible through the lavender film of taro milk tea. On top, Lim spoons glossy, jiggly squares of coffee jelly, which bristle against the nutty taro for an earthy, smoothie-like experience that evokes dessert. Slithering through the extra-wide straw, like soft candy, are the tapioca bubbles called boba that you squish apart with your back teeth. (They are not born that way: Boba begin as hard balls that need to be soaked and boiled to softness).
“I drink them all,” said Lim, 30, who has been crazy about bubble tea since she was she was a child growing up in China’s Fujian province. After Lim moved to New York with her family, she spent her teen years sampling bubble tea all over the city. “She couldn’t live without bubble tea,” affirmed her husband and business partner, Eric Chen.
Just a few months after opening The Bowl — a sunny haven with a few tables, a poke counter and ramen broth burbling in the back — Chen and Lim sell hundreds of bubble teas every day, and Lim is usually the architect. “She’s a chef,” said Chen.
BUBBLE TEA BOOM
Just five years ago, finding bubble tea on Long Island wasn’t an easy task — but the category has seen exponential growth. A cheerful-looking creation of almost endless possibility, bubble tea is served in two basic styles: Fruit, in flavors such as mango or grapefruit, or milk, with cream (or non-dairy creamer, as at The Bowl) added to matcha, jasmine or oolong tea, with a foamy top sometimes spooned over at the end. And while tapioca boba is the default., bubble and jelly choices run to popping fruit boba, which burst open in your mouth for tiny explosions of sweetness, or jelly toppings made from lychee, pineapple or even herbs.
Bubble tea’s roots stretch back to Taiwan in the 1980s, when milky iced tea filled with tapioca pearls was sold by street vendors. Bubble tea subsequently spilled across China and East Asia; in the U.S., it first ascended on the West Coast, in the late '90s, followed by New York and other cities. “We are definitely not the newest generation for bubble tea,” noted Chen, who said its components are always evolving in scope, as is its audience. (The bubble tea market is projected to grow by roughly 8 percent a year until hitting $3.23 billion in sales a decade from now, according to Persistence Market Research).
Is it the wealth of choice inherent in bubble tea that make it so popular, especially with Generation Z? Ordering grapefruit tea with tapioca balls and lychee jelly, or a milky taro tea with brown-sugar boba, or a peach tea with passionfruit popping boba can be, after all, an early foray into culinary preference and self-expression.
Jin Park, who opened a bubble-tea shop, The Early Bird Cafe, in an East Meadow shopping plaza this spring, has another theory. “Kids look at anime and they see bubble tea. That’s why it’s trending now,” he said, referring to the Japanese animation that influences youth culture, especially clothing.
Inside the narrow, modern Early Bird, hip hop blares as Park blends earl grey, honeydew, rose milk or creme-brûlée milk teas. He also makes iced fruit teas (such as peach black tea with green tea) and flavored latte bubble teas, like matcha or “Oreo dirt” lattes, to which Park might add an “original cream cap”— a layer of milk foam perfected during his years as a barista — or a salty “cream cheese cap.” The possible accoutrements are many: Tiger brown-sugar boba, or mango popping boba, or aloe pulp. “[Bubble tea] could be an iced tea, it could be like a smoothie,” said Park, who also makes slushes, another bubble tea subcategory, and his own sparkling sodas.
Though Park’s spot and The Bowl are independently owned, bubble tea chains were some of the first to take bubble tea out of bakeries and restaurants and center the drink in its own niche. One of the largest is Gong Cha, a Taiwan-based company that has more than 1650 locations in 20 countries, including a kiosk in Roosevelt Field. A steady trickle of shoppers, mall store employees and teenagers stop each day, studying the menu to puzzle out dozens of combinations, including toppings such as grass jelly. Each bubble tea is, in turn, sealed in its cup by a layer of foil. To access the boba within, you shove a straw through the top with a satisfying pop. (Gong Cha is also known for their silky milk-foam).
On a recent afternoon, Kaitlyn Vira picked up Gong Cha bubble teas for her and her mother. Vira, 23, said she’s been drinking bubble tea since she was a child in Valley Stream, when it was mostly absent from Long Island and she had to travel into the city to score some. “It’s much more acceptable now,” she said, and to her delight, much easier to find.
“There’s something different about it. You can’t go to a regular cafe to get a milk tea,” said Vira, clutching an icy strawberry-matcha milk tea with boba. (Her mom had taro milk tea). “When you drink it, it’s like an experience.”
WHERE TO GET BUBBLE TEA ON LONG ISLAND
There are exponentially more bubble tea places on Long Island than there were even three years ago. Here are a few places to find it.
The Bowl (88a Atlantic Ave., Lynbrook): This cute spot has a few tables and a robust bubble tea operation that offers a rainbow of fruit and (non-dairy) milk teas. More info: 516-758-7500, thebowl88.com
The Early Bird Cafe (1934a Hempstead Tpke., East Meadow): Modern and soulful, owner Jin Park’s bubble tea shop brings a culinary ethos to the genre. More info: 516-743-8978.
Gong Cha (Roosevelt Field Mall, Garden City): One of the largest bubble-tea chains in the world, the drink here run to Wintermelon Milk Tea and Lemon Ai-Yu White Pearl, as well as slushes and lattes.. (Other locations in Lake Grove, Mineloa and Jericho). More info: gongchausa.com
Matcha Tea In Heaven (52 N. Country Rd., Smithtown): This spare, stylish cafe specializes in ceremonial-grade matcha, which is not only served hot but in an array of earthy iced matcha boba in flavors such as matcha lemonade and calamansi. More info: 631-980-8333.