This past summer, my teenage daughters — serious boba lovers, as I was when I was their age — slurped countless cups across the San Gabriel Valley. (They brought their own reusable stainless steel straws, which we washed between uses. You can buy them online or in some of the stores below.)
We skipped the meh chains and found our favorite — mostly indie — spots, each of which stands out in its own way.
This pioneer of on-site house-made boba balls is the hands-down winner for the best tapioca pearls. They have flavor beyond sweetness all the way through their not-too-chewy, not-too-soft spheres. My favorites were the black sesame and chrysanthemum options.
500 N. Atlantic Blvd. #168, Monterey Park, (626) 782-7886, onezo.us
This shop’s boba-making-machine sits right out front for all to see. Its sweet potato boba has a comforting tender texture with a not-too-sweet sugariness, but the tea itself is watery, even with the popular topping of foamy whipped cream cheese, cream and milk.
709 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel, (626) 225-2821, teamaru.us
Tastea offers mix-in options such as lychee, jackfruit, and aloe vera, which deliver the same eating-while-drinking satisfaction of the tapioca pearls in traditional boba drinks. Plus, Tastea uses fragrantly intense high-quality tea leaves and makes smoothies and juices that taste especially fresh.
349 E. Main St., Ste. 104, Alhambra, (626) 289-8886, gotastea.com
Labobatory is gimmicky, but if it’s good, does it matter? There are science lab beaker graphics, cringey puns (50 Shades of Earl Grey) and trend-chasing ingredients (butterfly pea flower). But there’s also milk tea made with Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie Butter —and it’s awesome.
819 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel, (626) 804-1717, labobatory.com
Slow-brewed from actual tea leaves, the drinks here take a while to arrive but are worth the wait. The roasted oolong has a woodsy smokiness, and the flower green tea is attractively floral. You can take or leave the textbook boba but shouldn’t skip the perfectly frothed milk foam.
625 E. Valley Blvd. Ste. L, San Gabriel, (626) 545-2705, bobapop.com
Are you a fan of Wong Fu Productions? If not, get yourself to youtube stat; if so, you’ll feel like me, which is that if it was opened by filmmaker Phil Wang, it was worth a visit. You sort of feel like you’re in one of his YouTube hits when you’re there and the boba’s fine if unremarkable. Also, there’s outdoor seating with cornhole, so win-win.
841 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel, bopomofocafe.com
Boba tea’s truest value lies in being a drink-food that takes a long time to finish so you can spend time with your friends. This place gets that. It’s open until 1 a.m. and has a chill aesthetic with lots of tables good for group homework projects or a game of cards.
425 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 766-1991 facebook.com/Boba-Ave-8090-645110735514022/
Why is there always a line down the block? The boba is too chewy, the tea too watery. I thought its popularity was related to its location near a lot of schools. (I mean, that’s why my kids were there.) But those kids of mine, all smart from school, explained, “Ma, it’s because it’s cheap.” That matters when you’re a teenager without real income, so get in line.
524 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena, tpumps.com