It’s a reliably bad idea to go looking for an edible specialty of the last place you lived in your new hometown. Not only are the search results bound to be disheartening, but the whole endeavor’s unfairly dismissive of local culinary culture. At least that was my stance until Saturday, when I really wanted a coconut bubble tea.
Bubble, or boba, tea originated in late-1980s Taiwan, possibly when a teahouse staffer impulsively poured her tapioca pudding into her iced tea. Whether or not the story’s true, flavored tea with chewy tapioca balls is now slurped compulsively across East Asia and in North American cities with significant Asian populations. In Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, an entire subculture has sprung up around boba shops.
In downtown Charleston, though, there’s only one source for bubble tea: Chopsticks House, a quick-service Chinese restaurant which got into the boba biz about 18 months ago.
Compared to the baroque boba operations on the west coast, Chopsticks is astoundingly minimalist: There are only 19 flavors available, and there’s no chance to customize the cold, milk-based teas with fruit jellies, red bean paste, egg pudding or tapioca balls in various sizes. More disappointing – at least for the newcomer who’s made the elementary error of craving bubble tea out of context – is the beverage’s construction. Rather than starting with freshly-brewed tea, Chopsticks staffers put flavored powder and ice in the blender, and then add limp pearls to the watery smoothie.
Still, it’s at least nominally boba, which is a great find at a Chinese restaurant which serves chicken wings and French fries for lunch. And Jeff Wragg, a College of Charleston physics professor who dines at Chopsticks at least four times a week, says plenty of customers are ordering it.
“Sometimes two or three people come in just for bubble tea,” says Wragg, who was asked by a Chopsticks staffer to handle my questions on the restaurant’s behalf. “It’s more popular than I thought it was going to be.”
Although Wragg’s made seven trips to China, where he first encountered bubble tea at a café “in the middle of nowhere,” he doesn’t consider himself a fan of the drink.
“If I had to pick, blueberry would be interesting,” he said, scanning the dry-erase board listing the offered varieties, “if you could just remove the tea flavor.”