Portland — a capital of craft beer, artisan tea and third-wave coffee — has long lagged the craze for boba tea. Until now.
Since 2018, at least 32 boba tea shops have opened in the metro area, giving the region 55 shops in total — not including restaurants and food-focused establishments that have boba on their menus. The field includes international chains like Ding Tea, Sharetea and Happy Lemon but also a wave of locally owned shops.
There are competing stories for who exactly invented the drink, but many say it originated in Taiwan in the 1980s at the Chun Shui Tang teahouse. As the story goes, a woman was sitting in a staff meeting and had a dessert called fen yuan, a sweetened tapioca pudding, with her. She decided to pour the tapioca into her iced tea — and boba tea was born.
Boba tea goes by other names as well: bubble tea, zhen zhu nai cha (pearl milk tea), pao pao cha.
The most old-school form of the drink is a milk tea with black, chewy tapioca pearls at the bottom that you suck up through fat straws especially made for boba. The pearls are made from the starch of the cassava root, a tuber also known as yuca native to South America. As the drink has become more widespread, this description has expanded; boba now loosely encompasses any tea or milk-based beverage with toppings that can include everything from basil seeds to grass jelly to salted cheese foam.
When it comes to good boba, purists would say the tea base is crucial. Though modern imaginings of the drink have strayed a lot from their original form, I’m generally open to creative interpretation. Most boba shops will offer a variety of flavors both hot and cold, blended and unblended, with different infusions of flavors and even ice cream. I place a high value on fresh ingredients and things that are made in-store rather than purchased (think freshly brewed tea, rather than milk tea powder).
Then there are the toppings. I’m a bit of a stickler with this one — good tapioca pearls are crucial, even when other toppings are offered. The perfect boba has to be completely cooked through, but retain enough chewiness that it is not mushy.
The pearls should be soaked in brown sugar or honey to bring out their natural flavor. But boba that has been sitting too long will lose its “bounce” and have a starchier texture. Boba pearls cannot, I repeat cannot, go into the fridge. Once chilled, the insides become hard again and the boba lose their springiness.
With so many boba options around Portland, we wondered which shops offered the best. I visited 29 boba shops in the Portland and Beaverton areas, trying two drinks at each location. Folks, that’s 58 boba drinks in a month and a half. I chatted with employees and took their recommendations into consideration, though I also followed my own boba-filled guts when deciding what to order. At each shop, l tried one milk-based drink and one fruit-based drink — most boba teas fall into one of these two categories.
Here are the Portland area’s top 10 boba shops worth a special trip.
Order: Hyper Mango ($6) and Yinyang2o + Coffee Jelly ($5.50)
This drinks and dessert location tucked inside downtown’s Union Way alley offered the most nontraditional renditions of boba on this list. Their Hyper Mango blended drink was delicious. It’s essentially a mango coconut milk smoothie with a whole, fresh mango, grapefruit chunks and finely blended ice, a tried and true combination inspired by Yang Zhi Gan Lu, a popular Hong Kong dessert. The Yinyang2o was a nice balance of coffee and tea without the usual bitterness of coffee. This is a shop I would continue visiting until I’ve tried every drink on the list.
1-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; 1022 W. Burnside St., Suite N; 503-206-6685; swee2o.com
9. T4 Tea for You
Order: Royal Fresh Milk Tea + Grass Jelly ($4.75) and Honey Peach Royal Tea + Boba ($4.75)
Like many major boba players, the T4 franchise began in Taiwan in 2004, but it has a much smaller presence in the United States. Though most locations are concentrated in California, T4 has a growing collection of shops in Oregon. The Clackamas location offered a unique rendition of the traditional milk tea with strong roasted Earl Grey tea notes, and their specialty Jadeite Royal Tea — a lighter green tea — forms a refreshing base for the Honey Peach Tea and most of their menu. Their grass jelly topping had a more herbal flavor than at other establishments and complemented the milk tea well. They also serve an addicting basil popcorn chicken.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; 8962 S.E. Sunnyside Road; 971-335-3931; facebook.com/t4uclackamas
Other locations: 526 N.W. 23rd Ave., 18365 N.W. West Union Road (Bethany); 15035 S.W. Barrows Road #131 (Beaverton)
8. Yoonique Tea
Order: Durian Creme Milk Tea + Boba ($7.25) and King Fruit Tea + Aiyu Jelly ($7.25)
If it weren’t for the pandemic, Yoonique would be the No. 1 pick for best local boba hangout. In addition to its Alice in Wonderland crossed with magical fairy forest theme, this cute shop boasts an impressively wide menu. I tried the Durian Creme Milk Tea at the recommendation of owner Cindy Nguyen, who said it was their most popular order and made with fresh durian. I must warn the reader — many people don’t find the pungent odor of durian, a custardy fruit popular in Southeast Asia, particularly appealing. But I thought the distinctive durian flavor and cream balance was crafted well, and their boba pearls were exactly the perfect texture — gummy, springy and soft. The King Fruit Tea wasn’t overly sweet and worked well with the herbal tones in the aiyu jelly.
11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 p.m. Friday-Sunday; 5348 S.E. Foster Road; 503-719-4119; yooniquetea.business.site
7. 85C Bakery
Order: Zebra Oolong Milk Tea ($4.60) and Grapefruit Green Tea + Boba ($4)
Though this Taiwanese chain is known for its baked goods, it has a large boba menu that holds its own. Founded in 2004, 85C is known as the “Starbucks of Taiwan” and drew crowds for its Washington Square opening in 2019. After waiting in a significant, spaced-out line on a Sunday, I found the Zebra Oolong Milk Tea was fairly strong and had the distinctive, heavy texture that accompanies boba teas with an oolong base. The drink included black boba contrasted with small clear konjac jellies (hence the name “zebra”). Made from the konjac plant, a yam-like tuber from East and Southeast Asia, these jellies do not dissolve in your mouth and require extensive chewing, a fun addition to the regular boba topping. The grapefruit tea was tart and pulpy with a slightly bitter kick that balanced out the sugar. Though the tea base wasn’t very strong, hints of the floral jasmine came through.
10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday; 9753 S.W. Washington Square Road (Washington Square); 503-352-4600; facebook.com/85CBakeryCafe.Portland
6. Kungfu Tea
Order: Oolong Milk Tea + Boba ($5.25) and Strawberry Lemonade Green Tea + Herbal Jelly ($5.35)
Founded in New York in 2010, Kungfu Tea is the largest U.S.-grown boba tea franchise, with two locations in the Portland area. If I could rank just the boba toppings, this place would be my No. 1 pick. The boba was perfectly cooked, with just the right sweetness soaked into it and a soft, pillowy texture. Then there was the herbal jelly — a light and grassy companion to the sweetened tea. The oolong milk tea was the strongest of the oolong teas I’ve tried, but the green tea lacked presence in the strawberry lemonade drink. However, the strawberry jam balanced the tartness of the lemonade well.
Noon to 6 p.m. Monday-Sunday; 700 S.W. Fifth Ave. #1175 (Pioneer Place); 503-227-3072; kungfutea.com
Also in The Streets of Tanasbourne: 2185 N.E. Allie Ave. (Hillsboro)
5. Boba Milk
Order: Strawberry Matcha + Boba ($7) and Pineapple Jasmine Tea + Boba, Basil Seeds, Matcha Shot ($7.75)
Boba Milk owners Ina and Ben Bui are veterans in the Portland restaurant scene, with frozen yogurt establishment Skinny Dip and their popular Vietnamese eateries Short Round and Fish Sauce. Their boba tea and frozen yogurt shop shares a spot on Southeast Division Street with Mama Loi, a pop-up featuring the crowd favorites from their two restaurants. The most popular item at Boba Milk is the Strawberry Matcha, a tri-colored drink layered with strawberry puree, whole milk and matcha. The drink settles into a light shade of green after shaking and has a strong, sweet strawberry flavor, like a matcha latte with strawberry milk. The fruit jams used in their drinks — pineapple, strawberry, raspberry — are made in-store. I tried the pineapple jasmine green tea with a shot of matcha as recommended. Though the matcha costs extra, the grassy flavor worked surprisingly well with the pineapple.
Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; 2134 S.E. Division St.; 971-229-1617; bobamilk.com
4. Ding Tea
Order: Wintermelon Milk Tea + Golden Boba ($4.90) and Strawberry Lychee Tea + Starfruit Jelly ($4.90)
Another boba giant from Taiwan, Ding Tea arrived in Lents in 2019 and opened two more locations in North Portland and at Portland State University. They have an extensive menu with store-specific specialties and a whopping 16 topping options. I was most impressed by how the tea notes shined through in the Strawberry Lychee Jasmine Tea. Fruit teas are notoriously difficult, often made too sweet and without any hint of the tea base. Most shops use an over-brewed jasmine or regular green tea as the tea base that ends up astringent and bitter, and then mask the flavor with cloyingly sweet fruit syrups. In Ding Tea’s fruit tea, however, I could distinguish between the separate strawberry, lychee and jasmine green tea notes as well as the residual syrup from the starfruit jellies at the bottom. Ding Tea also has the best variation of one of my favorite boba tea flavors, winter melon. Its light smokey vanilla or caramel flavor pairs well with the chain’s signature golden boba. The amber orbs are a little softer than your usual boba and have a stronger honey flavor.
Noon to 9 p.m. Monday-Sunday; 9244 S.E. Woodstock Blvd.; 503-841-6827; dingtea.com
Other locations: 4225 N. Williams Ave., 536 S.W. College St. (at Portland State University)
3. Happy Lemon
Order: Freshly Squeezed Lemon Black Tea + Boba ($6.45) and Jasmine Green Tea with Salted Cheese + Taro Balls ($6.45)
With its iconic winking lemonhead logo, this shop is world famous (or perhaps infamous) for its cheese foam drinks. Cheese foam — also known as sea salt cream or salted cheese — has become commonplace, but it’s safe to say Happy Lemon took the concept and ran with it. The Shanghai-grown global chain started in 2006 and has since expanded to more than 1,500 locations worldwide, with the Bridgeport Village location opening last July. To create the cheese foam, Happy Lemon layers whipped cream cheese on top of the tea, bringing another dollop of flavor when the sweet and salty mix in your mouth as you sip directly from the cup — not through a straw. As you nurse your drink, the cream gradually dissolves into the tea, creating a milk tea with a hint of salt. The richness of the cream worked extremely well with the refreshing and floral jasmine green tea. I decided to combine this drink with taro balls, a topping common in boba tea shops in Asia but less common here. The soft purple balls made from taro root are smaller than boba pearls and have a texture closer to gnocchi.
The Freshly Squeezed Lemon Black Tea is a delightfully sharp and acidic drink. Too often “lemon” just tastes like lemon-scented window cleaner, but that’s not the case here, where the earthy black tea flavor comes through and the customer can adjust for sweetness.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Monday; 7 p.m. Tuesday; 7319 S.W. Bridgeport Road; 971-713-3067; portland.happylemonusa.com
2. Tiki Tea
Order: Sea Salt Olive Oolong Tea + Boba ($4.75) and Strawberry Jasmine + Grass Jelly ($5.75)
This bright, minimalistic tea shop opened in the Alberta district in June 2018, immediately drawing a small, fervent following. Husband and wife Gunn Chan and Wei Lin designed everything in the shop. Now, Chan’s sister, Man Li, runs it while the couple live in Hawaii. Li and her brother grew up in China’s Guangdong province drinking various Chinese teas, but said it was difficult to find good quality boba tea in Portland. The trio developed Tiki Tea’s recipes based on the teas they liked — with no artificial sweeteners and only natural ingredients. Their menu offers pineapple, mango, strawberry and peach drinks, all made with frozen fruit, Li said. The sugar syrup is cooked in-house, as is their grass jelly topping. Some of the popular teas are brewed in advance — ceylon, jasmine, oolong — but there’s also a variety of freshly brewed loose leaf teas.
Tiki Tea’s drink philosophy comes through in their boba tea. All of their drinks highlighted the natural flavors of the ingredients in a quality take on boba that still runs cheaper than several of the chain establishments. The sea salt olive oolong tea is brewed with the yellow olive flower, also known as osmanthus. It’s popular in East Asian desserts and has a subtle floral taste mellower than jasmine. A layer of slightly salted cream on top mixed well with the muted tea. Their strawberry jasmine tea embodied the coming summer, with a barely sweetened strawberry slush and a slight jasmine fragrance. One of my favorite menu items is the Coconut Taro Smoothie, which features a rich blend of real taro and thick coconut milk.
Noon to 7 p.m. Friday-Monday, 6:30 p.m Wednesday-Thursday; 4936 N.E. 16th Ave., Portland; facebook.com/tikiteapdx
1. 5 Flavor Cafe
Order: House Milk Tea + Matcha Pudding ($5.75) and Lychee Garden + Aiyu Jelly ($6)
At Portland’s best boba shop, every cup of tea is brewed to order.
Nestled just south of Washington County’s Oak Hills neighborhood, 5 Flavor Cafe is owned by former tech workers Steve and Vy Chao, who opened the shop in February 2018. After retiring early and traveling the world, the two noticed that many of the foods and flavors they missed “didn’t exist” in the Portland area. They set off to curate a menu to match their taste buds — a process that involved tasting eight or nine Sri Lankan ceylon black teas just to get one component in their House Milk tea right and trying more than a dozen boba suppliers. They’re able to brew every drink to order because of their teapresso machine, which allows them to get a cup of tea in 32 seconds instead of the normal 3.5 minutes it takes to steep a tea.
The classic House Milk Tea features a strong blend of various black teas without watering the overall drink down. The matcha pudding, along with several other toppings, is made in-house with a pudding mix the Chaos chose after tasting seven or eight kinds. The Lychee Garden featured dried rose petals and lychee bits in a drink with subtlety rather than overt sweetness. The aiyu jelly is made from seeds of the creeping fig found in Taiwan and other East Asian countries. Extracting the gel — which 5 Flavor Cafe also does in-house — involves wrapping the seeds in a mesh bag and rubbing it vigorously under cold water until the seeds release gelatin that then sets in the fridge. The jelly had a barely-there texture and an herbal taste similar to chrysanthemum flower.
The couple also owns the DOJA Tea Lounge, which opened last March in Tualatin at 18674 S.W. Boones Ferry Road and focuses more on brewed tea and desserts.
Noon to 8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 14740 N.W. Cornell Road #160; 971-228-8430; 5flavorcafe.com