Steven Cong drinks a lot of boba. To date, the 22-year-old UCLA student has documented over 124 different boba drinks from around the world. The majority of his finds are in California and he has been posting his drinks along with a photo and a rating on his Tumblr page — aptly named Bobaholic.
The goal: to create a boba database.
While the term “boba” most commonly refers to the pearled, tapioca balls seen inside tea drinks, it is also used as a slang for any of the drinks produced in Asian tea houses. Cong abides by the latter definition. His site features a wide range of concoctions with various toppings.
The boba culture, which in Los Angeles County resides primarily in the San Gabriel Valley, is best compared to the coffee culture elsewhere in L.A. The tea houses double as community gathering centers and people get really personal about their drinks, since the variations are endless. There's the tea base, an option to add milk or other flavorings, and then the toppings — which can be as standard as black tapioca pearls or as intricate as popping boba (which are pearls that pop when you chew on them) and lychee jelly.
Cong's dedication to his burgeoning blog is admirable and his knowledge of the drinks is unmatched. He often makes the trip to the San Gabriel Valley from West L.A. just to sample local boba drinks. Thing is — he doesn't have a car. Cong completes his trek for boba via public transportation. While the boba blog started out as a hobby, it also aligns conveniently with Cong's field of study. He's currently enrolled in UCLA's Asian American Studies Masters Program, and sees this as a side project.
“I hope to build a community resource for people around the world to access,” he said. “This way, they might be able to develop a better idea for what kind of drinks they might want to get when they visit a part of the U.S. On the other hand, I want to create as comprehensive a profile of boba as I can, so that kids like me, who grew up in parts of the U.S. without a lot of Asian Pacific Islanders, can be proud of how dynamic, variegated, and widespread contemporary Asian Pacific Islander culture is.”
We talked to Cong about his project, his favorite drinks and how he rates what he tastes:
SQUID INK (CLARISSA WEI): Why boba?
STEVEN CONG: Boba is an Asian American cultural identity product. It’s not just in the past. It’s in the present. It’s an expression of who Asian Pacific Islanders are. Horchata boba, for example, is specific to Southern California. Boba drinks are constantly expanding and developing. Ice milk is the perfect example. You won't really find those drinks in Taiwan. It’s very Asian-American.
What's your favorite drink of all time?
My favorite drink comes from the Bay Area from a place called Purple Kow. They have a ice milk drink that’s really good. For me what’s really important is the drink base. It’s sweet, which is something I like. Their honey boba has a really pronounced honey flavor which is very distinct and their grass jelly topping is really soft. I'm also a big fan of sea salt drinks. That's really popular in Southern California right now. It's milk foam drink that's salty and sweet. It's very creamy, there's a lot of flavors going on, and it’s really rich in texture.
What about in Los Angeles specifically?
Definitely TBay in San Gabriel. I like their Hokkaido milk cream with a black tea base. It's really strong in a good way. The milk is a little heavier than what milk cream should be, but because their tea is so strong it works really well. It has sort of a buttery and velvety texture to it.
Sounds like you're a big fan of the more milk-based drinks. Hokkaido milk tea is known especially for being on the creamier side with a distinctive caramel and toffee note. What about a suggestion for people who aren't into milk and are just looking for good tea quality?
Tbay has great tea quality. They have the best fruit tea that I’ve tried so far. Flower & Tea in Pasadena is also up there and Ten Ren is good as well.
Most underrated place?
Isn't that a hot pot restaurant?
Yeah. Their milk tea is really special. A lot of people think legit boba has to come from a legit boba place but Jazz Cat proves that theory wrong. The Hokkaido milk tea is really good. I've heard a rumor that the manager of Bon Appetea used to work at Jazz Cat and Bon Appetea is known throughout the area for their Hokkaido milk tea. One more pick.
They don't have a brick and mortar but it's called Pop’d Up. They have this Thai green tea with milk popsicle that's the best I've ever had. I love how they add condensed milk.
How do you find all these new boba stores?
Via Yelp. Extensive Yelp search. I always tell myself I can stop at any point. I try to get through all the most culturally impactful boba places out there and after that I pinpoint places known for more specific drinks.
Tell us about your rating system.
The rating system is arbitrary of course. If it’s the first time I tried something, I won't post it right away. I'll keep it in mind. Average is 5. The number 7 is decent. I do have a comparative system. I compare ice milk teas with ice milk teas. And fruit teas with fruit teas. Over time, as I try more drinks, I'll adjust my ratings accordingly.
How much boba are you averaging a week?
I try to limit myself to two to three boba drinks per week to stay on the healthier side. I don’t usually get the tapioca pearls unless the place is known for them.
Follow Cong on his self-described quest to “drink as much boba and milk tea as [he] can without dying” at bobahol1c.tumblr.com.