That’s the tea
The Black & White reviews local bubble tea stores.
October 20, 2018
Four Black & White editors went hunting for the best bubble tea in Rockville, the go-to place for good Asian cuisine. They went to four stores—Bubbles & Tea, Gong Cha, The Lab Cafe and The Pearl Lady—and asked for their most popular and aesthetically pleasing drink. Drinks are scored from 0 to 10 based off flavor, presentation and bubble taste and texture. Each review also features two photos, one from before shaking the drink and one after shaking. All photos by Yiyang Zhang.
What is bubble tea?
Bubble tea, also known as boba tea, milk tea or pearl tea, originates from Taiwan. The common milk-tea consists of a mixture of milk and tea (who would’ve guessed), with tapioca pearls—commonly known as “boba” or “bubbles”—at the bottom of the drink. Recently, stores have been adding more fruity flavors to attract a wider range of customers.
Meet your critics
Jenny drives all the way to Tysons Corner just for bubble tea on the weekends since Kung Fu Tea at Montgomery Mall gives too much ice and not enough boba. She consistently orders the same drink every single time: Winter Melon Milk Green Tea. In her opinion, the tapioca pearls are the best part of the drink, since without the bubbles, bubble tea is just tea… or juice… or whatever they make the drink out of now.
Zoe is moderately well versed in bubble tea, but with embarrassingly basic taste—a Jasmine Milk Tea kind of gal. As a the token White Girl™, she knows nothing about #authenticity; she’s just here for the boba.
Yiyang is a true tea addict. Isn’t bubble tea just a fancy tea dessert? She’s not exactly a tapioca pearl lover but is always open to trying new drinks. Probably cares more about nutritional values and ingredients than taste.
Katherine is a complete bubble tea novice. She tried it for the first time in August 2018 and could only describe it as “weird, but good.” She’s childishly excited about every aspect of bubble tea,astonished by milk caps and yogurt bubbles and is probably unworthy of the company of these bubble tea connoisseurs.
Restaurant One: Gong Cha
Purple Sweet Potato Fresh Milk Black Tea: $5.85
Description: A classic tea with fresh milk and a unique purple sweet potato flavor.
OVERALL RATING: 7.5
This was my favorite drink of this trip, hands down. Even though this drink is still sweet (that’s kind of the point), if all of the other drinks had a sugar percentage of 100, this drink would be at about a 40. It has a great texture and the bubbles are chewy, but also significantly smaller than the norm. The grainy feel to the drink was a new experience for me but it gave the drink a fuller feel and assured me they weren’t just pouring food coloring in. Less sugar in the actual drink highlighted the sweeter bubbles and provided a refreshing change.
Why I expected to like a purple sweet potato drink when I don’t like purple sweet potato normally is beyond my powers of observation, but I can confidently conclude that this did not improve my impression of the humble root vegetable. It really, really, really tastes like purple sweet potato and has a unpleasant and slightly chalky texture. The drink is a very pretty color and the store is part of a conglomerate of Asian food stalls, so thankfully, good food abounds if purple sweet potato isn’t your thing. I’ll meet you next door.
Gong Cha has been a fairly popular bubble tea chain in China so I had high expectations going in. The tea did not disappoint. I love the fact that they used fresh milk in the drink instead of milk powder or creamer like most other bubble tea stores. The purple sweet potato flavor is definitely unique and you can really feel the sweet potato texture in the drink. The bubbles were cooked to a perfect al-dente. This drink would’ve gotten a perfect score if it weren’t for the sweetness; I would probably adjust the sweetness level to 50 percent for the next time I order.
One word conveys the awesomeness of this drink: creaminess. It tastes like the delightful offspring of a milkshake and milk tea. The texture is smooth and thick, and while I expected the sweet potato to be off-putting, the savory edge was intriguing instead.
Restaurant Two: The Lab Cafe
Oreo Milk Tea: $4.98
Description: An amalgamation of milk tea with oreo chunks.
OVERALL RATING: 6.5
Although there was clear effort to make the drink appealing, milk tea and Oreos just don’t work together. You’ll love to watch the drink be made and snap some photos, but you’ll reel at the odd flavor. The bubbles were honey flavored, which was different from all of the other spots. If I could just order the tapioca pearls from this place as a snack, I would, but in the drink it was so sweet that it made me feel weird.
You won’t want to drink too much of this Oreo concoction, because about halfway through, it dawns on you that Oreos and tea don’t actually taste good together. But before that revelation, the drink is fairly enjoyable. It has a slightly malty taste, which makes it much more interesting than just a typical Oreo-flavored drink. The texture is good—they achieve a good ratio of Oreo crumbles to boba to milk—and the drink is incredibly pretty. The store itself is very Instagrammable: neon lights, #aesthetic graffiti and pretty drinks are everywhere.
Lab cafe has a chic and fun environment that’s a perfect spot for friends to hang out. The presentation of their Oreo Milk Tea was beautiful and the most photogenic. The base of this drink is just milk tea but they make it Hong Kong style, which means that it’s extra smooth in your mouth and the malty taste pairs perfectly with its sweetness. I would’ve enjoyed this drink with just the milk tea base and the bubbles, which were also cooked nicely. Yet the addition of crushed oreos to this drink was unnecessary; it made the silk smooth drink crumbly and less enjoyable.
This drink was good but had nothing remarkable. I was excited about the Oreos, but the flavor was easily forgettable; the texture was only vaguely creamy and the bubbles were hard. Luckily, there were a few redeeming factors. For the Instagram-obsessed, the servers enthusiastically indulged our request to make it “extra pretty”, and the café’s aesthetic is very hip. Plus, it’s tucked away and comfortable—a perfect place to get a little work done or have a heart-to-heart with a friend on a rainy day.
Restaurant Three: The Pearl Lady
Strawberry Matcha: $5.45
Description: A typical matcha tea with freeze-dried strawberries.
OVERALL RATING: 6
It’s basically liquid candy; for your own health, please consider asking for 50 percent sugar. The bubbles here were amazing, they were larger and a great chewy texture. The Pearl Lady doesn’t dip their bubbles in honey, but they’re still sweet. If I could take these bubbles and throw them into a less sweet drink it would be a solid 10/10. The freeze dried strawberries were a nice touch to it, but the drink itself was already very sweet so they didn’t add a new twist flavor-wise. Very tasty in sips, but it’s so sweet I had to buy salty food to counteract its effects.
This reviewer might be a tad biased, because Pearl Lady was her go-to during two interminable weeks of Driver’s Ed in Rockville of all places (who even does that), but Pearl Lady makes the best bubble tea of all the shops we tested. The tea is very flavorful and sweet, but the sugar isn’t overpowering. The bubbles are relatively sweet and chewy—the ideal boba. The shop offers two kinds of bubbles as well: honey- and brown sugar-flavored (both are excellent). While Pearl Lady might have a more abbreviated menu than other tea shops, you can’t go wrong.
I am obsessed with matcha drinks but this Strawberry Matcha tea made me sad. I couldn’t really taste the matcha—the strawberry was the main taste that went through, and it was a freeze-dried strawberry syrup kind of taste. Because of the syrup, the drink turned out to be WAY too sweet for me. But their bubbles were bigger than other stores, which is fun for tapioca pearl lovers out there. The workers there are also very friendly: they offer samples of tea and toppings, which is perfect for people who don’t know what they want or have a hard time deciding.
This drink is WEIRD. Strawberry and matcha? If you pick your drinks based on novelty, this is the place for you; otherwise, the flavor is more confusing than complementary. It’s sickly sweet and my taste buds were ready to bail after the fifth sip. Also, the stark interior clearly encouraged a get-your-drink-and-go atmosphere rather than a warm hangout. I would’ve ranked this lower, except for the fact that they had free samples and free taste tests, and honestly what’s better than free food?
Restaurant Four: Bubbles & Tea
Description: A blend between passion fruit juice, mango juice, and something else that tasted a little bit like guava.
OVERALL RATING: 5.25
It tastes like Kool-Aid but with more sugar. I’m not sure if the colors are from perishable dye or actual juices, but I’m pretty sure it’s the former. The bubbles were overcooked and shapeless, but had a nice and unique flavor. It reminds me of the tapioca you can buy at the nearest Asian-mart. The drink was watery but very aesthetically pleasing.
The drink is far too sweet and seems to be about 90 percent passion-fruit juice from concentrate. It’s very pretty, but the lack of ice makes it weirdly warm. The actual store is in an odd location, but it’s next to a great dim sum restaurant and has a bunch of board games for customers to play.
You get a burst of passion fruit flavor on the first sip, and it’s a refreshing drink compared to the normal milk tea because of all the fruity flavors. The temperature of the drink was not cold enough, which was pretty disappointing. The biggest turnoff though was the bubbles. They were terribly overcooked: the outermost layer was too soft and the bubbles were more sticky than chewy.
The Aurora is basically an exotic lemonade, but unlike everyone else, I found that more addicting than annoying! The sweet, cool lemon-and-passionfruit combo is perfect for a hot summer day. I loved that the flavor permeated the bubbles and gave them a lingering fruity taste. Plus, it’s next to the illustrious A&J, and its board game collection is easily the most extensive of all the shops, which in my book is a reason to visit in and of itself.