Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - March 28, 2014

Bubble tea bonanza

Mountain View has plenty of places for those craving sweet tea with tapioca pearls

by Katie Straub

This Taiwanese drink is a local obsession in Mountain View. Stroll through downtown and plastic cups of bubble tea are spotted in the hands of passersby as frequently as cups of coffee.

Bubble tea, also called "pearl milk tea," "tapioca tea," or "boba," is a tea-based drink mixed with sweetened dairy powder and the all-important scoop of starch-based tapioca pearls at the bottom. The delectable dairy drink is usually served iced.

Because Mountain View is home to quite a few bubble tea cafes, it's about time we pulled out our straws and checked out the local scene, sampling the drinks at five popular bubble tea destinations on Castro Street and beyond. We've given them informal ratings based on recent visits.

Most popular: Tea Era Tea Room and Cafe

Tea Era is centrally located downtown. The ambiance has a distinctly "hole-in-the-wall" feel, and with little space for seating inside, it can feel cramped. Yet Tea Era frequently has lines that trail out the door, especially after dinnertime.

The selection of milk teas is notably wide, featuring some unique flavors. Their roasted barley boba has a nutty flavor and is one of Tea Era's most popular menu options. The ratio of powder to liquid can vary. The boba is usually on the sweeter side and tastes notably creamy, and the pearls are delightfully chewy.

Service at Tea Era is practical, and employees seem more focused on customer turnover than on prioritizing friendliness. But the price is right at Tea Era, with a typical pearl milk tea costing under $3.

Address: 271 Castro St.

Phone: 650-969-2899

Hours: Sun.-Mon., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; closed Tues.; Wed.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.,-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-12 a.m.

Most convenient: Tapioca Express

As part of a larger chain, Tapioca Express has more of a commercial feel than some of its local competitors. There's a fast-food vibe that can be sensed when placing an order — the milk tea is relatively cheap and it offers a wide array of entrees besides the bubble tea.

Most of the tea flavors are pre-mixed, with fresh pearls added. The tea is deliciously smooth in texture and it avoids being overly sweet. The flavor tastes natural, sometimes even earthy, which has a nice appeal to the taste buds.

The space is large and allows for an entire room of seating. The aging decor is is heavily inspired by Asian pop culture, complete with impressively tall stacks of comic books for customers to read.

Tapioca Express's ultimate strength lies in its long hours. When the other Castro Street destinations may be closed on weekdays and weekends, Tapioca Express remains open for business.

Address: 740 Villa St.

Phone: 650-965-3093

Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m. -11:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m.

Most friendly: Ocha Tea Cafe

Ocha is just as much a destination for bubble tea as it is for an entire meal. The cafe has ample seating for large groups, inviting decor with lots of large windows and a full menu. And, with a staff that is lively and smiling behind the counter, customers feel welcome to converse and stay for a while.

The flavored boba itself, however, can leave customers with a sugar headache. The portion size for a regular cup is giant, and the powder used can be overpoweringly sweet, reminiscent of melted ice cream. The freshness noted in the chewy texture of the tapioca pearls, though, were a saving grace.

Finally, bubble tea prices at Ocha were a little more expensive compared to most other vendors in the area.

Address: 1350 Grant Rd., Suite 8

Phone: 650-961-1813

Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-12 a.m.

Most surprising: Pearl Cafe

Located in a somewhat hidden location in a parking lot in the Showers Drive mall, Pearl Cafe does not immediately appear to be a bubble tea joint.

It is a charming cafe that primarily offers Hawaiian comfort food and American cuisine for lunch and dinner, but a significant portion of their menu is devoted to bubble tea and other specialty drinks.

And their bubble tea is good and creamy, surprisingly delicious. The tapioca pearls can be a bit gummy, though, which may turn-off some bubble tea connoisseurs.

The space is naturally lit through large windows and decorated with cute Hawaiian knickknacks. The staff is warm and accommodating, and the cafe also offers wireless Internet access.

Address: 506A Showers Dr.

Phone: 650-917-8988

Hours: Mon.-Sat., 8 a.m-9 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.

Best overall: Verde Tea Cafe

Verde Tea Cafe is tucked away just off of Castro Street and strikes just the right chord for any bubble tea expedition. With its quiet location, comfortable seating, and a more sophisticated atmosphere, Verde Tea is inviting for a formal lunchtime business crowd during the weekdays but also casual enough to attract a nighttime gaggle of kids.

The bubble tea is both refreshing and luxurious — it is not overwhelmed by huge amounts of dairy, sugar or tapioca starch but maintains a delicate, dessert-like sweetness. Also offered on the menu are snacks like pot stickers, crispy chicken and rice dishes.

Service is quick, with a staff that is cordial and attentive. Customers do pay for these elements, though, making the bubble tea a bit on the expensive side, at $3.30 for taro milk tea with pearls.

Address: 852 Villa St., Mountain View

Phone: 650-210-9986

Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m.

Email Katie Straub at kstraub@mv-voice.com

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