This post is prompted by two things~ On my old Geocities website that I’ve mentioned a thousand times and posted copies from, I had a specific set of pages dedicated to my love of bubble tea. I had pictures (although back then, very shitty quality) and links and random historical fact blurbs I literally copied and pasted from elsewhere. I had instructions on how to make tapioca pearls. I had a list of flavours I had tried. (My original bucket list post stated I wanted to try every single flavour available.) I even had a list of people I had introduced to bubble tea – and whether or not I had made a successful convert.
I always had plans to recreate something similar on my blog. (I’m a completionist. I feel unbalanced that I have some things from my old sites but not everything.) But what led me to finally doing it now was this conversation: (It started with a quiz thing my friend tagged me in and my response to one of the questions.)
I remember my very first bubble tea experience. It was November 1999. I was living in Winnipeg but flew back to Toronto to attend my high school graduation ceremony (no idea why they held it so late in the year – stupid) and to visit my friends.
My friend Geena, who was well aware of my penchant for instant obsession with anything at all pertaining to Japan, China or Korea, told me about bubble tea. It was a “new thing”. Of course, bubble tea had been around for a long time already, but us small town kids, with very little exposure to much Asian culture, had never heard of it. And 1999 started a boom in bubble tea being sold in café-like settings in our corner of the world. (Up until that point, restaurants didn’t have it on their menus and I think the only place to get it was at Chinese markets – or so I was told by someone later on.)
There was a place Geena wanted to take me to while I was visiting that was popular with her U of T friends. It was located in the space upstairs from Sushi Inn (which I also went to for the first time during that visit and it subsequently became my favourite restaurant – to this day). I have no idea what it was called anymore, but I remember it was dark inside, decorated like a funky lounge and it had these cool tables that had glass tops with bases made of plastic (alternating orange and white) moulded in the shape of …. jacks? or something and they had lights inside them so they glowed.
It also had a sign in the front window. It was a large circle, black, with a geometric representation of a cup of bubble tea in orange. Very iconic. A couple years later when the ownership changed hands and was remodelled and renamed, the only thing that remained was that sign. (Sadly, the time of independent bubble tea places was short lived and after that place too closed down, the space was changed again into a hair salon, which it remains today.) Side note: The cafe was actually used as a filming location for an indie music video – not a clue what the song was or who the artist was, but I recognized the tables and the sign when I saw the video.
I don’t think it was even a question of which flavour I would try first. In high school, Geena used to give me little hard candy balls that were honeydew flavoured from Korea. Yummy. (There were plum ones that we liked too but we both preferred the honeydew.) So she and I both got honeydew and our other two friends got chocolate and strawberry, I believe. (A picture exists somewhere… I’ll try to find it.)
As she knew I would be, I was instantly hooked. I loved it. I went back to Winnipeg hoping to find something similar. Alas~ I had no idea what a struggle it was going to be to feed my Asian cravings in Winnipeg. Back then, it was very hard to find anything Japanese, Chinese or Korean there. Winnipeg has a huge Filipino community and a lot of Vietnamese restaurants, but not a lot from the other Asian places – that I was aware of at that time. The Vietnamese restaurants turned out to be the only place I could find bubble tea. There were no cafés or tea shops then.
My cousins and I used to go to one restaurant in particular. ViAnn. It’s closed down now, but we went there often. (Hubby and I went on one of our first dates there!) I was delighted when I realized they had bubble tea on their menu. However, it wasn’t like the place I had been to in Toronto. They only had a few flavours and only served “slushy” style. I made do.
My cousins were the first people I introduced to bubble tea. They… were not fans. Granted, in hindsight, the bubble tea we had there was pretty bad. The tapioca was always hard, practically frozen, from the slush. My cousin Teena described them as monkey turds and never tried it again. Goes to show how one bad experience, especially when it’s your first, ruins it forever. My suggestion is that if someone has a bad one, they try another from somewhere else before writing off bubble tea altogether. (Although there are SOME people (*cough* Jodi) who refuse to even try it because it LOOKS or sounds gross to them. *side eyes*)
Fast forward a few months~ Meeting the guy who became my boyfriend and eventually my husband seemed to coincide with Winnipeg finally getting one of those café/lounge type paces. It probably opened a lot earlier than that but it was around then that I discovered it. It was called Sweet Escape and it was in a nondescript plaza on Portage Ave. Actually a terrible location for it. They need to lump these faddish Asian things together. How would anyone have known it was there? I myself only found it by accident. I was taking a different bus route than usual, or else I wouldn’t have been in that area at all.
This tangent leads to my next converts. Hubby himself, although Chinese and grew up with a ton of exposure to markets and such, had never had or I believe even heard of bubble tea either. On one of our “dates” during our frenzied two weeks together before we were an official long-distance couple, we stopped in at Sweet Escape.
It was like the typical tea shop set up you see now in the front section – a counter where you order with all the menus behind it, and a few tables to sit at. Nice and bright with street facing windows. (If memory serves, it was painted all white and had vinyl chairs and brightly coloured “Ikea art” on the walls.) But then they had a back area behind a curtain. Walking back there seemed so seedy! Once beyond the curtain though, it was like a night club, albeit an empty one. There was no one else there when we went. It was dark and very sparse (had potential but fairly pathetic) and they played techno music. I of course got honeydew, unfortunately in the slushy style that was the only thing available in Winnipeg back then, although it was much better than from ViAnn.
Hubby got raspberry – his favourite fruit at the time. I was thrilled because he loved it. His was actually made with real raspberries. He let me have a taste and I remember it was very sweet, tasted like raspberry jam, and had seeds in it. To this day, he reminisces about how good his first experience with bubble tea was and how he’s never come across a raspberry one as good since. Like a first hit of cocaine or something. My first successful convert.
After he went back home, I took my friend Courtney there too. She also got honeydew on my recommendation – and liked it so much I think even now, she’s only ever had the one flavour. (I didn’t learn to branch out myself until after I left Winnipeg, which wasn’t long after this point.) Second successful convert.
I moved back to the Toronto area in the summer of 2001. I had subsisted on the subpar long enough and had bubble tea as often as I could when I first got back. It still wasn’t that often because I was living in Mississauga and you had to drive quite a ways to get it then. Other than that place I had first had bubble tea, I went once to a place which seems in the middle of nowhere now, again with Geena, her boyfriend at the time, my boyfriend (now Hubby), and our other friend from high school, Tara. I think that was Tara’s first time. She was confuddled by the “hunks and chunks”. That place was called Bubble Tea and Me and it was somewhere in Thornhill. It was nice-ish but so far out of my way that we never went back. (I just looked it up. It still exists and looks identical to when we were there. Crazy.)
There was also a place out at the AMC theatre complex – again, in the middle of nowhere – called Vica that was actually an Asian-style crepes restaurant that also specialized in bubble tea. (Hubby and I are kicking ourselves now for not partaking in the crepes as much as the bubble tea, because we were as of yet unfamiliar with Japanese crepes. *drool*) We went there a few times, but they closed down too. Such a shame. It was a very large space, painted in an inviting, comfy yellow with cartoony things on the walls, and it smelled so good in there.
Then, *cue heaven/angel choir noise*, a bubble tea lounge opened up not too far from where we lived. It was called Bubble Q. It was located in a plaza on Eglinton at Mavis. It was cool inside. Painted black, purple, blue, and dark fuchsia. The furniture was vinyl. Either booths or tables in a raised platform area at the front. Hubby and I went there in their opening week. I was so happy to find a place close to us AND that it was good, that I somewhat accidentally tipped them almost 100% on our bill. (Hubby still brings that up from time to time to illustrate how I’m not good with math or money.)
We ended up taking his sister and her then-husband there with us and introduced them to the wonderful realm of bubble tea too. She had strawberry (the kind that looks like Pepto and tastes like Quik) and he had taro. 2 more converts.
It was actually them that found a Chinese convenience store closer to their house that made bubble tea and actually sold frozen tapioca pearls you could cook yourself – hence the need for instructions on my original page. (They just came in a clear plastic package with no instructions or labelling at all. I had to old-school Google (before Google existed) how to make them and kept the instructions for future use. Hubby ended up buying them quite a few times but we preferred to get our bubble tea from elsewhere.
I’m going to interrupt my boring, rambly outlining of the progression of bubble tea availability to say something about style. I mentioned that Winnipeg ONLY had slushy style available, which would lead you to assume Toronto had options. Back then, in what I refer to as the first wave of bubble tea shops, menus were fairly standard. You could get green or black tea base, milky or not, or slushy or not. The range of flavours was extensive, but ranged in variety depending on the shop. Until about 2002ish, chains didn’t seem to exist here yet. Everything was independent. That is when Tea Shop 168 locations started popping up and taking over existing independent shops – including Bubble Q. I was sad to see that one go. I had liked the feel of it. 168 was a totally different look.
They opened up a ton of locations all around downtown Toronto but that was the only one in Mississauga. They all basically looked the same. They had a concept. Everything was painted white, with cut out, rounded off geometric shapes in the walls, painted light green or blue inside. The furniture was all white (tables and chairs) and there was white vinyl banquette seating along the walls. It was cool for a few minutes, but I’m sure as you can guess, started to show their age almost immediately. And whoever the franchise owners were would junk up the spaces with “Christmas decorations” that ended up staying out all the time. They were all rundown looking pretty quickly but still had a certain charm to them and were a reliable place to go for bubble tea (as long as they remained open – the Mississauga location was only there for about a year, I think) for almost 15 years.
As I said, there was a boom for bubble tea shops in the early turn of the century. 168 took over and expanded very quickly but after only a few years, started closing up so that bubble tea was a bit harder to find again but not as difficult as it was before they came. I think 168 opened the door to making bubble tea mainstream.
The locations I went to most were Yonge & College and Yonge & south of Bloor, and occasionally Queen near Much Music. They were also the first chain to have locations inside Pacific Mall, which as I’ll get to later, exploded into a whole crazy thing in and of itself.
During this era, there were still no bubble tea places in malls or spots that didn’t somehow already cater to the Asian demographic. That was coming though…
Segueing back into the timeline, bubble tea was once again seemingly missing from Mississauga. Then we discovered a place in a Chinese-dominated complex at Creditview & Burnhamthorpe called Bubble Republic. This was the original Taiwanese style bubble tea. (I’ll write about bubble tea origins another time.) So they had the regular tea, milk tea, slushy AND milkshake, as well as some other signature drinks referred to as Yakult (which I later realized is a Japanese yogurt-y drink that they used in the base – ie. before the fruit flavour) and “smash oatmeal” (which even now, I’m still unsure what it is). They, by far, have the most extensive menu I’ve seen. And they also serve Taiwanese snack food. It wasn’t long before they opened up a second location at Hurontario & Eglinton. I am very pleased to report both of these locations are still as popular as ever. I was at the second location just last night and it took forever for us to get a table and then to get our orders. (Note: They opened up a third location about a year ago in downtown Toronto that I wasn’t aware of when I wrote this. I’ve been there twice since and it’s good.)
I have to digress again for a moment because I forgot about food until I just wrote that… Before 168, bubble tea places basically only served drinks. Yeah, you could get bubble tea at some restaurants with your food, but I think I alluded to the fact that THAT isn’t real bubble tea.
It was Geena again who introduced me to snacks at bubble tea places. (The reason she knew of these things way before I did was probably because she lived downtown and went to bubble tea way more often than I did (then 😜) rather than because she’s Asian and I’m not. Probably.) The novel snack on the menu was another thing that would be very familiar to Asian kids but unheard of to a white girl like me.
But wait, before you laugh, it’s a very specific kind of toast. Of course I grew up eating toast for breakfast but it was never really a snack you’d go out of your way for because it was boring and not very appetizing. But for some reason, BRICK toast is much more appealing and it wasn’t just butter or jam or peanut butter they put on it. No, the real treat is condensed milk. I had never heard such a thing. I didn’t even know people ate it as a spread. I thought it was just an ingredient in things like cheesecake. But this was not something new to Hubby. He grew up with it. His dad used to make it for him before bed (and ended up doing the same for me when we visit, along with a nice cup of tea. 😍)
So the secret which makes it different is the thickness of the toast (at least 3 regular slices thick), slathered with condensed milk and then broiled. That gives it the nice golden bubbly texture on top. I love how it’s gooey and sticks to your teeth! Mmmm.
Unfortunately, even though they still make it at Bubble Republic, and yes, I had some last night, it’s not the same as it used to be. They don’t take their time with it and they scrimp on the milk. Anyway~ That’s the only flavour I ever got. Why would I get jam or butter it anything else? Boring. It was just a nice addition to the going out for bubble tea experience.
Back to the evolution of bubble tea spots… So 168 was the place to go downtown and Bubble Republic reigned in Mississauga. Then Bubble Tease opened up in the malls. This was probably around 2005/6ish. Bubble Tease was never my favourite. I can’t explain it but I think it was a watered-down, white-ified, user-friendly version made to draw in non-Asians. And it did. It was very successful. Bubble tea had another mini boom. And I still went there because it was right down the hall from the store I worked at in Square One Shopping Centre. It filled a void, but I still preferred the real stuff. (To compare, my beloved honeydew tasted all wrong. I don’t even think it was made with tea! It just tasted like melon milk.)
They had the basic menu of drinks – green/black tea, milk tea, slushies and your choice of tapioca or jelly. (*sigh* I’m not going to go back and edit now but I forgot to mention the jelly option. I first saw it at Vica. Most independent places only had tapioca so, other than the rare place like Vica, 168 was the first to have it on their menu as a mainstay. Bubble Republic, of course having more options than anywhere else also had aloe but I think that was it for “toppings” until later…) They had also originally tried to launch “bubble cakes” (egg cakes) but never had the batter made or irons turned on so they never took off. Pity. I love those.
So Bubble Tease, even though it was mediocre in quality, opened another new door for true mainstream bubble tea, starting franchises in malls. Eventually, Bubble Tease became a last resort for Hubby and I because the franchises were all being taken over by non-Chinese/Taiwanese people and sadly, the quality suffered even more. When they first opened in Square One, is wasn’t too bad. “Fake”, like I said, but drinkable. That location eventually closed but there is still one in the ‘big mall’ in my city and it’s complete crap. Their menu has none of the customizations that it did before and the typical flavours are conspicuously absent. Outside of downtown, Bubble Tease is unrecognizable as bubble tea. (They’ve had a resurgence down there lately and some newer locations are good …and Asian run. 😏)
(That sounds totally racist… Um, stereotyping for sure, at least. *shrug* Don’t know what to tell you. I think Asians make bubble tea better than anyone else… Whatever. I’m a terrible person.)
But, by this time, a bunch more chains opened up in malls and other places. Ten Ren and Real Fruit come to mind first. Two very different places. This denotes a time when bubble tea split into separate styles. Ten Ren is straight up from Taiwan. It’s good quality bubble tea, a good variety of flavours, and an easy to navigate menu and ordering system. Real Fruit was a new style. I’m not sure where it originated but it seems more geared to North American tastes, or at least plays off what we are familiar with. It’s a gateway drink. Real Fruit basically sells smoothies with tapioca in it. Not quite real bubble tea in my mind but I can’t hate on it. They are still good drinks and make it easier to introduce people who are apprehensive about trying bubble tea for the first time.
I guess now is the most logical spot to get back to Pacific Mall. I should really write something up about the wonder that is that shopping centre at some point, because it’s truly awesome and I love it and have many great memories from there, but I’ll keep it simple here and just say it’s a Chinese-style mall with hundreds of tiny shops all falling into a few categories – clothes, home goods, hair/nails/cosmetics, stuffies, accessories for phone, cars, whatever, bootleg media, snacks, and bubble tea. Before, back when I brought it up earlier, there were a handful of independent places and 168. Then Real Fruit and Ten Ren came in. That was it for a few years. I was there recently though, and it’s like bubble tea culture moved in and threw up everywhere.
For many years, bubble tea culture was at a standstill. Places like 168 were closing locations all over and the few independents that sprang up didn’t last long. But other chains, like Ten Ren were expanding. Maybe they learned their lesson from 168 and were much more modest about it, therefore lasting longer. Bubble tea was still present but it blended in and no one was really talking about it much. Places like Bubble Republic were still packed on weekend evenings with the Asian kids but places like Bubble Tease and Real Fruit – coincidentally the ONLY TWO bubble tea locations in my whole city that I moved to after we left Mississauga 10 years ago, both in the mall (BT is shit and RF is a last resort because there is nothing else here) – had a slow trickle of customers.
And then!! 🎉🎉🎉 Bubble tea hit the second wave. Naturally, being Canada, things happen here after they happen in the States. I experienced “new bubble tea” in San Francisco with Hubby’s cousins about a year before it caught on here. Obviously with the large Asian population on the American west coast and their actual physical proximity to Asia, there were a ton of pre-existing shops there but one of the ones they took us to had a menu unlike any I’d seen before. Instead of the 3-4 basic styles with a multitude of flavours, there were way less flavours but many more customizations and toppings. At a Gong Cha location in Berkley, I got a plain green tea flavour but with a ‘milk foam cap’ from their “mustache series” menu. I also had to specify how much ice and sugar I wanted. Brilliant! Hubby’s cousin explained to me a lot of places were like that now and really popular in Hong Kong. (They go there a lot.)
Side note: When I was in Hong Kong, I was looking for a bubble tea spot. It wasn’t until near the end of my time there that I found two close to my place, only one of which I actually had time to try out. I found out much later after I left from my school friend Justine who went on the same program the year after me that there was a Gong Cha located in the shopping mall attached to the station I went through every day but just never saw it. 😭
So maybe about two/two and a half years ago, a Gong Cha opened up near Pacific Mall. Not IN it. We hardly ever go there because it’s so far but it gave me hope of more similar chains opening soon.
I was in luck. We all were! Bubble tea has gone through a revival in Toronto. There are now many more new style chains around than the older ones. And it’s much more popular with non-Asian people than it was before. I think there are maybe 2 or 3 more Gong Cha locations but they are still further out. The most popular are CoCo and Chatime. There is also Sharetea (the chain I did get to try out in Hong Kong) and another one whose name escapes me right now, but I know the signage is turquoise and white… Also PresoTea has opened up in malls which seems to be a hybrid of old and new style. (Note: Gong Cha has a downtown location now too that opened recently, just down the street from CoCo, but the ‘turquoise and white’ place is now closed.)
Chatime‘s menu is extensive. They have plain and milk styles and quite a few flavours. They also have the ice and sugar qualifiers (regular ice/less ice/no ice and 100/70/30/0% sugar) and a choice of toppings (tapioca, jelly, pudding, grass jelly, etc.) CoCo and Gong Cha are different. Their drink menu is pre-set. For instance, only certain ones come with sago (mini, clear balls rather than the large brown tapioca) and certain ones with the milk foam, etc. There are hardly any fruit flavours. They also have red bean as a topping (goes best with matcha smoothie, I guess.)
It makes it SO MUCH EASIER to get bubble tea now. But sadly, my city still only has the two places, one of which we NEVER go to (BT) and the other which has very limited options for non-smoothies (RF) and still isn’t even that close. Our better option is just to drive into Mississauga these days, which we did last night. There are no Chatimes in Mississauga yet that I know of but there is a CoCo directly across the street from Bubble Republic on Hurontario. I couldn’t actually decide between old and new style yesterday… so we got both. Went to BR and got my honeydew milk green tea with condensed milk toast for a taste of nostalgia and then immediately to CC where I got what they call “2 Ladies” which is milk black tea (plain, no fruit flavour) with both tapioca and pudding (with ‘no ice’ and ‘regular sugar’). Best of both worlds.
I’m so glad Hubby loved his bubble tea the first time he tried it. His love for bubble tea rivals mine now. I don’t think he would have ever been up for back-to-back teas otherwise.
Update: There is now a Chatime in Square One in Mississauga, which is much more convenient. AND, there is now a place to get bubble tea only 5 MINUTES FROM MY HOUSE! It’s a coffee/bubble tea shop called Bean & Pearl and ~yay~ it’s pretty good.
To go back to that conversation with my friends I shared at the beginning of this insanely long journey, no, I don’t drink bubble tea even half as much as I drink regular cold and hot tea at home but I definitely do drink it fairly often and without a doubt, WAY more than most people who drink it at all.
(I actually had to put myself on a bubble tea ban for awhile because my bubble tea consumption increased dramatically. Not long after writing this, Hubby and I went on vacation and had bubble tea every day. I gained even more weight and that is not good!)
I said earlier that, once upon a time, it was my goal to try every single available flavour of bubble tea. I’ve actually had a ton, but not all because some are gross and why would I do that to myself? Although, I have had some pretty gross ones, like wheatgerm (see picture closer to the top of this post), sesame and Taiwanese plum. Some, like passion fruit, I just don’t care to try because l know it would be a waste. I don’t like those fruits.
I have about 5-8 regular flavours I rotate depending on my mood. These are my favourites: (certain flavours only from certain places)
honeydew milk green tea, obviously
lychee green tea, slushy or not
peach green tea with lychee jelly
peach milk green tea
hibiscus green tea (Ten Ren only)
mint milk green tea
honey milk black tea
almond milk tea
caramel pudding milk black tea
honey green tea
matcha milk tea
hot jasmine milk tea
champagne milk tea (Bubble Republic exclusive flavour – I get it with mini tapioca)
I rarely ever get tapioca anymore. It’s not that I don’t like it but that it’s too filling. I only want about 10 balls before I’m over it.
‘new style’ favourites:
green tea with sago
green tea with milk foam
Once, I had a non-milk honeydew at an independent place downtown and it was sooooo good but I never saw it again and the place closed down. I’ve had real fruit honeydew but it’s so not the same thing.
I’m also happy to say that I’m still a strong bubble tea ambassador and occasionally still make a successful convert.
I have so much more to say about bubble tea, but I’m going to leave it here for now because a) I just wrote for like 4 hours about one topic and I have lost interest in writing and b) poor you! This is way too long and rambly and, frankly, pointless.
Thanks for your attention. (You should probably discuss your masochistic tendencies with a therapist.)
So much bubble tea! It makes me happy. 😀