In this Year of the Tiger 2010, there are perhaps as many boba shops filling the L.A. basin as there are intersections to hold them. I imagine container ships stacking up in San Pedro Bay bearing nothing but vacuum-sealed tapioca pearls from the food factories outside Kaohsiung, waiting to dump their payload into robotically-sealed cups of syrupy tea from Santa Monica to Ontario Mills.
Taro, the starchy corm (i.e., a modified underground stem, rather than a true bulb), cultivated widely throughout eastern Asia and Oceania, is a personal bubble tea favorite–and a misnomer to boot. Rarely is there any actual tea in taro milk tea, which typically consists of taro powder, flavored and dyed a fetching lavender, sugar syrup and milk or creamer. Little culinary lies aside, I'm on a mission to source L.A.'s best taro milk tea. Below are the first five candidates. Your boba hits and misses are welcome in the comments.
Volcano Tea: 2111 Sawtelle Boulevard, Los Angeles; (310) 445-5326.
A fine median by which to gauge one's bubble, Volcano's taro milk tea is cheerful and sweet without being ham-fisted, and gently nods at taro's toasted, earthy flavors. The brew is not artificially purple and of the establishments using powder, theirs is the least chemical of the bunch. Volcano Tea is generous with their boba; too bad it's undercooked. The gummy outer skin is forgivable, but the core is as dense, floury and stiff as pasta that never made it back to the boil. Suck on that oversize straw with appreciable velocity and you may wind up with tapioca bullets shooting down your trachea.
Tea Station: 11688 South Street #101, Artesia; (562) 860-7089.
Part of Taiwan-based Ten Ren's vertically integrated tea empire with multiple locations throughout Southern California, Tea Station's taro milk tea offers the most well-conceived flavor profile of the powder places, subtle, not too sweet and faintly nutty, indicative of a judiciously mixed brew. The tapioca pearls are dispensed lukewarm from a holding vessel; their temperature coaxes the shy taro to reveal itself. Unfortunately, at last visit they were a few degrees too hot, slightly curdling the milk and breaking the emulsification of the drink. A generally good brew torpedoed by haphazard assembly.
Little Bean: 18415 E. Colima Road, Rowland Heights; (626) 965-1616.
This was the lusted-after highlight, the queen stage of the inaugural boba trek for one critical reason: fresh taro. Little Bean's is cubed, frozen and buzzed in the blender along with syrup and cream, rendering something like a taro milkshake, while the boba lurking at the bottom–chewy, soft and faintly sweet–surrenders its outer layers to the muddle above. Little Bean's taro milk tea was the most textural of the group, equal parts dense cream and airy froth. The flavor was unlike any other: woody and raw with hints of vanilla and almond. However, taro lives to stymie chefs. Its flavors are always muted; its potato-like starchiness is not. You cannot drop a few fresh-frozen cubes into your Blend-Tec as if they were peaches or berries and expect a shake to materialize. It was impossible to overcome the impression that someone had slipped me tea brewed from Idaho Russets. I have wrestled with taro, from the sandy, unpeeled tuber to the stove and the serving platter. I love its flavors and fear its perils. Certainly there's a better way.
I Love Boba: 534 S. Western Avenue, Los Angeles; (213) 384-5030.
Best thing first. This cramped boba shack, marooned in an asphalt parking lot off of Western Avenue, serves the best tapioca on today's list. They do love boba–tender, chewy, uniformly soft without sacrificing body and revealing a subdued, nutty sweetness. I Love Boba's pearls have heft and character distinctive enough to be sorted from the drink in which they swim. The milk tea itself was a disappointment. Cloying, candied and absent any nuance of taro, legit or powdered, it resembled the sort of artificially stabilized refreshment one finds in a corrugated steel can of UCC milk coffee.
Boba Loca: 10946 Weyburn Avenue, Los Angeles (310) 443-8911.
Boba Loca, a bustling chain with outlets rivaling those of Tea Station, adheres to the semi-shake milk tea model, wherein a few cubes of ice are blended into the drink prior to being poured over the pearls. It lends the brew a pleasing creaminess but the tea is otherwise unremarkable. Loca's taro powder was the most Crayola of the bunch; the artificial tint biases the palate before you sip and any pronounced flavors are lost. The boba itself (Boba Loca is the only shop thus far to use the small BB-size units) was absent any flavor at all, tasting quite similar to the straw I was pulling them through. Stick with Boba Loca's Intelligentsia coffee instead.