The Battle of Boba, and More, in the Parkside

July 10th, 2020 No Comments »

The strawberry milk bubble tea from STIX in the Parkside, July 2020.

By Kerri Young

With over 51% of people identifying as being of Asian descent in the Parkside District, with Chinese spoken as the predominant language, evidence of Asian culture is reflected everywhere in the businesses along the Taraval Street corridor. These demographics are a big change from the Parkside’s early days, and today, businesses from Great Wall Hardware to Dumpling Specialist are helping to maintain Chinese culture in the district.

“Boba” is the nickname for both bubble tea’s signature tapioca pearls and the drink itself. Image courtesy of Eater.com.

Nowhere is this better reflected than in the presence of several bubble tea shops in the district, serving up drinks with a treasured place in the Chinese and Asian-American culinary landscape. Bubble tea, more popularly known as “boba,” is the fusion of milk tea and chewy, gelatinous tapioca pearls. Milk tea, typically made with powdered creamer introduced in Taiwan by American foreign aid programs during the Cold War, was a favorite local drink prior to the 1980s. And, while easily mistaken to reference the tapioca pearls, the “bubble” in “bubble tea” actually refers to the thick layer of foam that forms on top of the drink after it’s shaken in a cocktail shaker. For a deep dive into the history of boba, I recommend this thoughtful article from Eater that explores boba’s status as “more than just a drink,” and how it grew into a subculture and identity (and the complications around that). Today, I’m here to give an unscientific opinion on what I thought of some of the Parkside’s boba offerings.

A view from the door into FOAM Tea House. As with STIX and Teazo, you can place your order from a table at the door, or call ahead.

What I tried:

Foam Tea House 
1745 Taraval St.

STIX
1353 Taraval St.

Teazo
1050 Taraval St.

Criteria, out of 10:

  1. Taste
  2. Quality of the boba (or other topping) in the drink
  3. Value – the boba drinks I purchased averaged $4.50-$6.75, was it worth it?
  4. Return-ability factor – would I go back?

Spoiler: I found something to like in all of these! But personal taste will determine whether or not you agree with my (hot) takes.

Note: While my approach could have been to try the same thing at each location to compare apples to apples, I instead chose to try a more unique offering at each shop to sample the (often mind-bending) diversity of options available for boba drinks. Again, I don’t pretend that this is scientific in any way! All three shops have social distancing guidelines in place for ordering and pick-up, and encourage phone orders to skip the wait and minimize contact for payment.

FOAM Tea House

My order:
Mango Sago Slush

On a block with cozy neighborhood spots like Eagle Pizzeria, Versus Games, and Kingdom of Dumpling, FOAM Tea House markets itself as “the only place you still can enjoy the traditional hand crafted and shake milk tea in San Francisco.” As mentioned above, the “shake” comes from the fact that Boba drinks are commonly prepared by shaking the ice, milk, tea, and sugar in a cocktail shaker which resulted in a lot of bubbly foam. FOAM’s unique offerings included drinks with sago, which are slightly different from the larger tapioca pearls most are used to seeing in boba drinks but which essentially serve the same purpose. See this helpful graphic below:

Sago versus tapioca, from Spruce Eats. 

With its mix of mango and coconut sago, getting the Mango Sago Slush was a no-brainer and it was delicious. While boba shops traditionally let you adjust the sweetness levels of milk tea drinks, offering increments of 25%, 50%, 75%, or 100%, many shops have signature drinks that don’t allow any adjustments. The Mango Sago Slush was one of these drinks, and while I was nervous about it being too sweet, it was the perfect balance of sweet and creamy (hot take: When you have the opportunity to choose your drink’s sweetness level, never choose 100% unless you want to feel like you’re drinking the equivalent of a bag of gummy bears). Slightly reminiscent of the bible-length menu of milk teas at Quickly shops around the city (read), FOAM has a huge menu full of traditional milk teas, a “FOAM series” (?), flavored teas, iced milk, and slushes. While this drink was the priciest of all three I tried ($6.75), the huge size and great flavor of the sago slush definitely will bring me back to try one of FOAM’s many other offerings.

  1. Taste – 10
  2. Quality of the boba (or other topping) in the drink – 10
  3. Value – 10
  4. Return-ability factor – 10

STIX

My order: Strawberry milk tea with boba, 25% sweetness

STIX is a place that I think you could only find in a neighborhood like the Parkside. Featuring a fusion of American and Asian food cultures, STIX features corn dogs and boba! This combination of gut-busting goodness undoubtedly thrives in an area with a high population of families, as well as its proximity to students at Lincoln High School (just in the time I was waiting for my drink, a group of teenagers plus a mom and her child stopped by for orders). It reminded me of the once-popular mall staple Hot Dog on Stick (alas, San Francisco’s one location inside Stonestown Galleria closed a while ago), except for corn dogs, fries, and lemonade you can buy corn dogs covered in fries and boba. I guess this is the natural evolution of things, and why not?

The boba at STIX is actually not the main attraction, it’s corn dogs. With everything from ramen-covered corn dogs to potato-covered corn dogs, STIX feels like a new twist on the Hot Dog on Stick model.

STIX offers different flavors of milk teas, and, like Foam Tea House, offers toppings beyond boba like lychee jelly and mango jelly. While house milk tea (black or jasmine tea with milk) and coffee milk teas are standard drink flavors at boba shops, I hadn’t seen strawberry milk tea before so I decided to order that. It wasn’t really my cup of tea, and reminded me a of strawberry Nesquick, but I could see how someone with different taste buds would love it. And because I didn’t try the traditional boba topping at Foam, I decided to try it at STIX. And it was good! The boba was soft but with a slight bite to it.

  1. Taste – 5
  2. Quality of the boba (or other topping) in the drink – 10
  3. Value – 10
  4. Return-ability factor – 7 (to try the waffle fries and the house special guava cooler)

Teazo

My order: Very Berry Cheezo

Does the combination of tea and cheese sound unappetizing to you? If it does, “cheese tea” aficionados will tell you that it tastes better than it sounds. These cheese-topped boba drinks originated in the night market stands of Taiwan around 2010, and you can now find them slowly making their way to many specialty boba stores stateside. The cheese topping is a mixture of whipped cream cheese, whipping cream and sea salt, and, at TEAZO, it is paired with cold fruit teas.

A pre-stirred Very Berry Cheezo. It is infinitely improved by mixing all the ingredients together.

TEAZO’s version of cheese tea is called “cheezo,” a name I fully support. And if we’re talking unique offerings, then getting a cheezo drink was definitely the way to go. I got the Very Berry Cheezo, a frozen strawberry slush topped with cheese foam. The resulting combination of creamy, slightly sweet and salty cream cheese foam, topped over a cold berry slush is something to marvel at. I even added tapioca pearls to make it more like a standard boba drink, and it ended up being more of an afterthought because this cheese drink can stand on its own. The drink was so delicious that I am thankful that cheese tea has made it stateside, and has found a home in the Parkside.

If you’d like to go with something more standard, TEAZO has traditional milk teas, fruit teas, and caffeinated dessert drinks like oreo smoothies and watermelon slushes.

  1. Taste – 10
  2. Quality of the boba (or other topping) in the drink – 6
  3. Value – 10
  4. Return-ability factor – 9 (it was too good that I dinged off a superficial point in order to say that this drink should be treated as some type of reward rather than a regular thing).

I would have liked to try Super Cue Cafe, but they are temporarily closed. Overall, the Parkside has strong boba offerings, and I encourage you to come out to the district and support these family-owned shops while sampling some of the most popular examples ( and delicious) from Chinese and Asian-American food culture.

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