If you spent any substantial amount of time in a shopping mall over the last 15 years, you know what bubble tea, or rather, boba tea is. Or at least you’ve passed the ubiquitous stands and raised a brow at the brown pearls at the bottom of the pastel-colored drink. Howard Chang, Mike Galyen and Colin Sugalski, all of the DC food scene (mainly through their work at Toki Underground), started a pop up called Boba Tea DC to introduce one of their favorite things to the district, while elevating this childhood novelty to an accessible treat. We caught up with the team ahead of their next pop-up, this Sunday at Seasonal Pantry.
How did bubble tea become a mall fad in the US, instead of being part of a meal?
Howard: I’m not quite sure. At least from my experience, when I was a kid I used to go to Taiwan, and bubble tea is one of those things you never saw adults drinking. It’s mostly a younger crowd. And I think that’s part of the reason why it’s at the mall. It’s mostly a kid market. And it’s like that in Taiwan too. When you go to different shopping centers, there are bubble tea stands like that, but there were actual stores too. As regularly as you’d see a Starbucks, you’d see a bubble tea place. But that’s also part of the reason some of it is too sweet.
Mike: Yeah, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. They made it super sweet because kids are the ones that normally drink it, and because kids are normally drinking it, they don’t feel it necessary to branch out and do more interesting things with it, like maybe put alcohol in it, or fresh fruit. Because kids just want candy, candy, candy.
And I’m guessing those are things you’ll be doing to make it a drink for everyone and not just a novelty.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve been working out some bubble cocktails, but something we’ve done from the start is always using as many fresh and real ingredients as possible. Real milk, real tea, real sugar. But also keep in mind we’re not making it for kids, so we’re not using so much sugar that we’re rotting your teeth.
It’s not going to be like eating a Sour Patch Kid, when you can feel the cavities while you’re chewing.
Mike: Exactly, because we never liked that, even though we liked bubble tea growing up.
Colin: And bubble tea has always been very packaged. It gets sealed, and it’s an on-the-go sort of thing, so that’s why you never see restaurants offering it. So the way that we’re approaching the bubble tea idea is making it more of a craft thing. While Howard obviously has a really great background with it drinking it as a kid, and Mike and I enjoyed it as we grew up, now that we’re in the food world and we’re involved with a lot of new ideas, we had to turn to bubble tea eventually.
From what I’ve seen before, you guys have been all about locally sourced ingredients for a while. What’s locally sourced here besides the fruit? And what about the tapioca pearls?
Mike: We’re not making our own pearls right now. It’s pretty crazy, and there are people out there that do it so exceedingly well that for us to say we can do it better right now would be really foolish. We took a long time to find the perfect pearls. We bought a bunch of different kinds, and we’re really happy with what we’ve got now.
Howard: The most important thing as far as tapioca pearls is really just tapioca. There’s no chemical component. It’s more just the quality between the pearls. But the more important thing, and I’ve learned this from growing up in a Taiwanese community, is how to cook them. Not only do we take pride in researching which pearls to use and finding the different types, but we had to research the perfect way to cook them. How to give them the right texture and the perfect amount of chewiness, without making them too chewy or too hard, or not cooked through all the way. There were a lot of experiments testing different times, different temperatures, different methods. After nailing that, we knew we had a good, solid base from which to start.
I didn’t realize there were that many varieties of tapioca pearls.
Mike: I don’t think we did either. We very quickly realized we had our work cut out for us. But it was a cool process, eliminating the ones that weren’t as good as some others.
This Sunday won’t be your first pop up. What have been the more popular flavors, and what are you bringing back? Is there a signature one you bring back every time?
Mike: We try to have a seasonal one– at least one seasonal. And we always bring back the super traditional ones, like green tea and taro. Everybody knows those, so you basically have to have them. And that’s not to say it’s a cop-out, because everyone knows them because they’re that good. We’ve been doing spiced cider boba ever since it started getting cold out, and we’ve had a lot of fun making that one.
Colin: Going back to locality, for summer our seasonal flavor was a watermelon green tea. It was just pure tea and watermelon blended up. Mike and I were talking about it, and none of us like watermelon, but we thought it would be a really good idea. It was a great combination of really good jasmine tea flavor and I don’t think we added any sugar. We did’t add anything to it, we just blended watermelon and added green tea.
Mike: And now we’re giving away all our secrets!
I was going to ask you all about the teas you use, so people could make some bootleg Boba Tea DC at home.
Howard: We obviously have a specific recipe for it, but people can rest assured that we use seasonal stuff, we’ll buy locally. Even just here in Union Market.
Colin: And there’s 13th Street Market that opens up every Saturday next to us, but we would have to get there so damn early on Saturdays just to get a few things, and we realized there were more local farmers and we could start pulling from them. It was a lot easier and the fruit tasted better. It just made sense.
Mike: I think the saddest thing that happened this summer is when we realized we had to stop doing the watermelon. We got some and it wasn’t as good because it was out of season. We knew it was getting close to the end of the season, and it was time to find something else, so we switched over.
Howard: It goes back to not just us being chefs, but just being in the food world, you can really taste the difference. To get really good watermelon in the winter, it has to come from a really far place, and that’s a huge carbon footprint and a terrible thing. The idea to eat locally, eat seasonally is just a really good practice.
Colin: It’s funny, we get different deliveries and look through the produce and we were debating what our seasonal fall flavor is going to be, and then this one day, Howard was looking at the apples. We realized we can get these super close, and they’re going to be in season for a while.
Howard: With the spiced cider it’s always the different mulling spices.
And finding the right apple as well, which sounds really daunting.
Mike: Yeah, but it’s not like we didn’t enjoy the process. That’s part of why we’re doing it, because it’s fun for us. Finding the right apple means you have to eat a bunch of different apples.
Howard: When apples are in season and you can just bite into an apple and it’s perfectly sweet and crisp and fresh, it’s awesome. The idea of just eating whole foods is not just for your health, but a great way to “get back to nature.”
And feel more engaged in your food.
What do you guys see for the future of Boba Tea DC? At a certain point, are you going to find something a little more permanent?
Mike: We’d like to see something permanent.
Howard: Right now we’ve been having a lot of fun doing these pop-ups. We did a boba party at Runcible Spoon, and Seasonal Pantry has been great. Dan has been super awesome and we love the space. It was the first time we got off of H Street and away from Toki. It was nice to rearrange our thinking and change our game plan a little. District Flea has been fun, that was our first time doing something outside and changing our game plan again. It’s challenging and great, and at the moment we’re definitely having a lot of fun doing pop-ups, but we’d definitely like to see it grow. We like building the name right now and get a good following.
Colin: And we have other plans for the future, like the bubble tea cocktails we mentioned before. Just because I think that’s something that started as a joke at one of our pop-ups, like, “let’s pour bourbon into this!” But we did it, and we tasted it, and realized it could actually be a real thing.
Mike: The bourbon and taro is amazing.
Colin: Yeah, and the groundwork is already there. Rich syrup, brown sugar– it already goes well with bourbon, and taro’s got that earthiness to it. As things progress, we can see a lot of fun developing the cocktails.
You guys are doing a really great job creating permanence and a name for boba tea in the district, but are you worried at all that it might become another food fad?
Mike: I think bubble tea is a lasting thing. If you go to bigger cities like New York, bubble tea is all over the place. It’s not going anywhere. So, if we put alcohol in it, I don’t think that’s going to change. It will still be awesome.
Howard: As far as doing our research, just to see what other stores have been doing, we were looking to see if the bigger stores have been doing this.
I don’t think it really exists in the area, does it?
Howard: In the area, no. Not at all. Which is crazy because we actually have a huge Asian population in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia and Annandale. It’s strange there’s not something along the lines of a bigger name or main stream thing. There are a couple little shops here and there, and I’ve tried them. They’re all super sweet, and it’s pretty rough.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my mall stand punch card, though.
Howard: Nothing wrong with that. But it’s funny to me, because I’ve found German specialty stores and chains, and New Zealand chains. I don’t really see it going anywhere.
Colin: The steps toward alcoholic bubble tea or seasonal bubble tea, or any add-ons are again, keeping in line with our original mission statement, which is taking bubble tea, making sure that it tastes good at its very core, and then innovating it.
Howard: It’s rooted in tradition, but we definitely want to take it to another level.
And that’s obvious with the cider seasonal tea– you’re not changing what the tea is, you’re just making it more accessible.
Colin: That’s exactly it. As big as bubble tea is in our own heads, people are always asking, “what are those brown things you have to have?”
Mike: That was one of the coolest parts about doing District Flea. Since we were putting ourselves into a situation with a bunch of people that weren’t necessarily there for us, it was cool to gauge people’s reactions to what we were trying to sell and they had no clue what it was. We did a lot of talking just about what the pearls are.
Howard: We should have.
Mike: Maybe a PowerPoint presentation on boba.
Howard: Dim the lights, get out the laser pointer.
Colin: No, we should have done costumes.