Scattered near Southern Cali college campuses like UCI and UCLA, Asian-style bubble teahouses stay open late, serving the student community. They go through boxes of extra-fat straws, wide enough to fit tapioca balls or "boba" as it's often called, about the size of marbles. Stab their fluorescent-colored straws into cellophane-wrapped plastic cups which is filled with traditional flavors (green or black milk tea) or fruitier options (lychee, honeydew, mango).
Gummy and gelatinous, the tapioca boba bubbles sitting at the bottom of each cup symbolize a cultural staple for young Asians in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and all over California. For only about two bucks, the drink (hot or cold) is just as important as the scene—brightly-lit with comfy couches, usually blasting techno music. It’s the coffee shop alternative, with fat straws involved.
Here's a round-up of favorite boba hangouts in Southern Cali.
Address: 14805 Jeffrey Rd # A, Irvine, CA and multiple locations
As one of the first Westernized boba spots, the national chain now has more than 80 locations. Southern Cali is still their home base, but they're branching out. Flavor-wise, they’re branching out too—they’ve got 170. Since Lollicop staffers realize tapioca balls are an acquired taste for first-timers, they'll gladly let you order any drink boba-less.
Address: 2636 Dupont Dr, Irvine, CA and multiple locations
Like Lollicup, this ain't a mom-and-pop boba chain. It's as widespread in the 7-1-4 SoCal area code as Taco Bell. Some critics will note that boba her can clump up into a massive, annoying nucleus. Still a classic chain.
Address: 73 Fortune Dr # 101, Irvine, CA and multiple locations
They use real tea (no powders or just-add-water stuff) and brew leaves to order. Located at a pedestrian-frenzied outdoor mall-cum-theater-cum-food court called Irvine Spectrum, it's a fun Friday night hangout. Plus they've got an outdoor patio for warm Orange County nights.
Address: 9520 Garden Grove Blvd, Garden Grove, CA and multiple locations
The bright cartoonish website is a lot like the boba experience in general—colorful with crazy dance party beats. They claim their flavors are low in fat, not usually the agenda for boba franchises.
Address: 11900 South Street Suite 125, Cerritos, CA
Some might call this mini-chain a sell-out, given their menu of coffee and tea, not to mention croissants, cookies, bagels and other blocks of carbs. Where’s the boba hidden in that menu? They still have a good selection of flavor staples.
About the author: Erin Zimmer is our Washington, D.C. correspondent, where she is a new media analyst and frequently writes for Washingtonian, DCist and other local publications. While Georgetown's food columnist, she investigated the cafeteria's omelet station, Hoya coffeeshop's cultish pumpkin muffins and what exactly the basketball players eat.