Summertime is here, it’s hot out, so cool off with the ultimate iced beverage: boba — commonly served as a sticky sweet milk tea, with warm, chewy tapioca pearls.

Growing up in the early 2000s, I recall begging my dad to drive my sister and me (although my boba-loving father didn’t take much convincing) 20 minutes to the closest spot to grab an ice-cold cup of milk tea. Nowadays, around the Seattle area, you can find dozens of bubble tea shops, each serving up its own unique drinks and topping combinations.

Boba, also known as bubble tea, originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and arrived in the U.S. a decade later. At this point in 2021, it’s fairly ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest. This is not going to be a “what are those black blobs” story, but I’ll provide pointers if you still have yet to venture into the great world of boba. Over time, the boba universe has grown to include a variety of toppings and flavors, from pudding to cheese foam. To create this boba guide, we talked to Seattle-area boba shop owners for their tips on what to order (and in what combo!) and where to get it.

Where’s the best boba in Seattle?

The answer to this question is very subjective, and based off the 100-plus responses I got on Twitter, people have strong, highly differing opinions. Before we get to the verdict, here are some basic criteria to help you judge what makes a good cup of boba.

  • How is the tea? Yes, you can get boba with nontea drinks, but the experts say that good tea is crucial to the perfect cup. Some factors to consider: How fresh does the tea taste? How strong is it? Is it bitter?
  • How is the tapioca? You don’t have to get tapioca, but again, this is the topping integral to the classic boba drink, and thus one of the gold standard yardsticks. Good quality tapioca is fresh and elastic — stale pearls will be slightly hard, lacking the signature chewy texture. According to my colleague and boba enthusiast, Seattle Times video journalist Corinne Chin, the BEST cup of boba will have a warm bottom, as it means that they’ve very recently cooked the tapioca to perfection.
  • What do they offer? What are you looking for? Maybe the shop you’re at specializes in a few types of milk tea. Or maybe they have a Cheesecake Factory-style endless menu with a vast variety of flavors, drink types and toppings? Not every boba shop will necessarily serve up exactly what you want.

So based on that, where should you go? Here are some suggestions of locally owned shops in the Seattle area, based on my favorites, recommendations from self-proclaimed “boba experts” around Seattle and boba shop owners. This is by no means a comprehensive list, I encourage you to find your own favorites!

If you want the perfect cup of tea, look no further than Chinatown International District’s Seattle Best Tea.

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Owner Lydia Lin opened the shop with her husband in 1996, as a way to share her culture and teach people how to make the traditional teas she grew up with in Taiwan. Lin spent over a decade perfecting her tea-making craft before adding bubble tea to Seattle Best Tea’s menu in the late 2000s. Lin’s knowledge on everything from how to brew the perfect cup of tea to where to source the best leaves makes her drinks some of the best in the city.

On Capitol Hill, Tea Addicts opened in 2019 and is one of Seattle’s newer boba shops. Their tiny storefront between Pike Street and Pine Street quickly became known for churning out some of the most flavorful, consistent boba drinks in the neighborhood. Tea Addicts is known well for the quality of their teas, in addition to their ever-updating menu including beverages like blended yogurt drinks and caramel-y brulee and brown sugar milk teas.

“Every day as a kid I would buy a cup of bubble tea at the convenience store next to the bus stop after school,” said Tea Addicts owner Jace Zheng, who grew up in China. “When I came here, I wanted to use my cultural background to share with people what more authentic bubble tea is like.”

Woodinville’s Bobae has quickly become a favorite of my colleagues (peep this recommendation from food writer Jackie Varriano), Eastsiders and other boba shop owners (Tea Addicts’ Zheng is a Bobae fan, too). Having opened just before the pandemic, owners Karma and Joey Lee weren’t sure what would happen to their business, but their fierce dedication to the community and rotating menu have helped them build a loyal fan base. Check their Instagram before you go — one of Bobae’s signature traits is its creative menu, with new drinks every month featuring seasonal fruits and flavors (in July they’re serving a collection of pineapple-flavored drinks).

Other honorable mentions include Young Tea in the Chinatown International District (a beloved neighborhood spot that makes almost all their toppings and syrups in-house), 20 Oz. Tea in Eastlake (they have a slightly smaller menu, but have really perfected their unique drinks like ube milk tea and strawberry matcha) and Drip Tea on Capitol Hill (whose extremely hip, highly Instagrammable storefront also concocts beautifully layered drinks).

How to order boba?

Keep in mind that not every boba shop is the same — the number of drink/topping options at each place varies, but most will have options at least similar to these.

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The basics

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

  • Ice level: If it’s a hot day, maybe stick with a regular amount of ice, but if it’s colder out, you can request less or half ice. If you want a particularly strong drink you can ask for no ice, although the best chilled teas are best consumed ice-cold.
  • Sweetness: Some of the fruit-flavored teas can get pretty sweet. Would you prefer to cut back on the sugar? Try ordering your drink at 75% or 50% sweetness. Or if you like none at all, you can get 0% sweet, which cuts all the added sugar but maintains the drink’s flavor.
  • Hot or cold: What temperature do you like your drink? Keep in mind, some toppings like tapioca and pudding may melt in hot drinks.

Drinks

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

  • Milk tea: The OG, the classic, milk tea is THE boba drink. Black, oolong and jasmine are the most common tea bases, combined with milk, creamer and usually some other flavor (anything from taro, to strawberry, to brown sugar). And many shops offer dairy alternatives for the lactose intolerant. If you’re thinking about which tea base to get, consider that black is the most caffeinated, with a bold, hearty flavor, while jasmine and oolong taste more light and floral.
  • Tea: Maybe you wanna scrap the milk altogether? That’s cool. There are many plain iced teas often infused with fruity flavors (think: lemon green tea, peach black tea, etc.).
  • Slushies/Smoothies: Full honesty, if you order one of these, some self-proclaimed boba expert will appear out of the ether and shame you for disgracing bubble tea. Slushies and smoothies are the most derivative from classic boba found in Taiwan but I say … what the heck, order what you want. If it’s a hot day and you’re craving an icy blended drink, go for one of these! Expect them to be a tad pricier and take longer to make than a normal tea drink, though.

Toppings

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

  • Boba/tapioca: The classic topping people think of when they get bubble tea. These chewy, dark pearls are made from sugar and tapioca flour and pair well with any drink.
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

  • Crystal boba: Similar in size and shape to regular boba, but made with agar (an algae-based ingredient) and comes in a whitish-clear color. It’s chewy, but not as sticky and gelatinous as boba. Its neutral, sweet flavor also pairs well with any type of drink.
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

  • Popping boba: Again, similar in size and shape to the other bobas, but very different in texture and flavor. Popping boba is comprised of a thin, edible membrane encasing a small pocket of fruit juice which bursts when you bite into it. This topping nicely complements fruity iced teas.
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

  • Egg pudding: A silky-smooth egg-based custard that’s not too sweet and goes well with milky drinks. Pudding appears as giant yellow globs that sink to the bottom of your cup, but slurps up easily when you use a straw, blending well with your drink, and doesn’t require the chewing that other toppings do.
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

  • Jellies: With a chewy texture similar to boba, jellies might be better suited for those who like having texture in their beverage, but want to give their jaw a break. Jellies are soft like jello, and can come in different flavors, including grass, mango, coffee, coconut and more. Their refreshing flavors pair well with fruity iced teas.
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

  • Cheese foam: A relatively new phenomenon in the States, this is a topping that floats at the top of your drink, meant to be consumed without a straw so you can get a good ratio of foam to tea. Cheese foam combines milk, cream cheese and a sprinkle of salt — sort of like a liquid cheesecake. If you love a sweet-salty flavor combo, order cheese foam atop a plain iced black or green tea. The pungent, tangy cheese complements the hearty flavor of the teas.
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

  • Red bean: Commonly found in other Chinese desserts, this is made from dry red beans and sugar. It’s sweet and a little earthy, and it keeps its shape even in hot drinks, pairing well with other earthy-flavored drinks like taro and matcha.

What kind of drink should you get?

So what should you get? Sure, you can stick with the classics — black milk tea with tapioca pearls — but there are so many other great options.

Bobae in Woodinville is always updating its menu, using seasonal ingredients inspired by customer suggestions and favorites from owners Joey and Karma Lee. The Lees agree that their matcha tea is top-notch. Try it with tapioca, or switch it up with signature drinks — “The Jade” has sparkling water in it, or “Red, White and Matcha” which includes a strawberry bottom, emulating a strawberry shortcake.

Tea Addicts‘ Zheng recommends Hokkaido milk tea with egg pudding. The caramel, milky flavor of the drink mixed with the creamy texture of the topping makes for a sweet beverage.

Seattle Best Tea’s Lin suggested oolong milk tea (one of her shop’s specialties) with one of their newer toppings: crystal boba. Or try her unique recipes, “Lydia’s Special,” a sweet concoction of green tea, yogurt, pineapple or mango flavors, and a splash of lemon juice. Drink on its own for a refreshing summertime spin on a classic lemonade, or add other light, fruity toppings like pineapple jelly.

But every person I spoke to for this story advised that you should experiment! One of bubble tea’s greatest joys is how customizable it is. So no matter your taste — maybe you prefer coffee over tea or don’t want something sweet, or like fruity flavors — you should be able to find something you like!