Bubble tea or boba? Depends on which coast you're from. Bubble tea is more widely used on the East Coast while boba dominates the West Coast; but both coasts can agree that this Asian drink is extremely popular and addictive. Bubble tea offers an extremely fun experience of simultaneously drinking and eating your dessert. You get to drink the tea while you chew on the sweetened honey bubbles on the bottom of the drink via a super colorful straw.
In the last few years, there has been an increasing demand for this type of drink. With this demand, there has also been an increase in the supply of flavors and ingredients. Nowadays, bubble tea goes beyond just "bubbles" or tapioca balls, and venture into fun toppings like various jellies (fruit flavored, pandan, grass, almond, etc.), coffee bricks, pudding, beans, coffee, the list goes on. Gone are the days of just milk tea and fruit tea, we now have fruit milks, slushies, smoothies, shakes, creamas, yakults, etc. With a world full of limitless options, it can get quite daunting when figuring out where to go and what to order.
Since bubble tea has enough sugar, carbs and calories to be considered a dessert, you want to make sure every sip is worth your stomach space. Here is my list of the 10 best places to get bubble tea in San Francisco; I've also included a brief summary, insider tips and drink recommendations for each. I've hand-selected these boba shops; they're food blogger-approved so you don't have to do all the work on playing bubble tea roulette on Yelp. Now go out there and get your bubble tea drink on!
Located right in the heart of downtown SF, this Sharetea location is so conveniently situated inside the Metreon food court. Where else would you be able to get fresh bubble tea right before your movie? Or take a stroll through the doors into beautiful Yerba Buena Gardens. They provide a large variety of black milk teas, green milk teas and fruit teas, as well as toppings like lychee jelly and egg pudding. You can't go wrong with their Black Milk Tea with Bubbles & Green Milk Tea with Bubbles.
Their new product, Pineapple, Mango OR Strawberry Fruity Bottle Shake, is incredibly delicious, with its super creamy flavor and extremely fresh fruit puree blended into a to-go bottle that has it's own cap, the mini bubbles in this drink are half the size of the standard tapioca pearls. They're a lot of fun to drink as it fills your mouth with chewy goodness and instantly brings you to your favorite tropical island with a smooth and frothy sip. Grab one or a few of these to-go and you don't have to worry about it ever spilling in your bag or car! Check in on Yelp to get a free egg pudding topping.
Address: Sharetea, Metreon, 135 4th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103
Neighborhood: Financial District, SoMa
Since I landed on the West Coast almost a decade ago, this has been my go-to place for deliciously brewed black milk tea or green milk tea. Situated right in the heart of Chinatown on Grant Street. Ten Ren's is an East Asian tea shop franchise that started out being known for their fresh teas imported directly from Taiwan. They have a wide variety of teas in gigantic golden tea containers and have a variety of different grades of any single type of tea depending on your budget, say Black, Green, Pu-Er, Oolong, Iron Goddess, Jasmine, Chrysanthemum or Rose.
Their latest Roasted Oolong Milk Tea is my current favorite milk tea in the city; the black tea is an unique blend of Oolong Black and Pu-Er. The milkiness is satisfying and has the perfect sweetness to it; there is also this special back palate from the Oolong that lingers on, after you've had your sip, leaving a memorable taste in your mouth. Their classic Jasmine Green Milk Tea with Bubbles (Hot OR Cold) is also another one of my favorites. Their green milk tea really has a subtle jasmine floral flavor that's not too overwhelming; the sweetness of the chewy honey bubbles match perfectly with the slightly bitter taste of the jasmine green tea. Very refreshing and satisfying.
Another favorite item I love to get here is their Jasmine Green Tea Dragon Pearls; I've found their jasmine tea pearls to be one of the highest quality green tea I've tasted here on the West Coast. You can add just a few tea pearls (about 5 - 7) to a cup of hot water and you can have about 2 - 3 cups of freshly brewed Jasmine Green Tea. The teas unfurl over time and there needs to be enough space within your cup in order for the tea leaves to unfold and the packed aroma to come out through the brew.
Order a hot or cold drink, stop by a nearby bakery in Chinatown and take it to the nearby Portsmouth Square and listen to some of the nearby community groups play traditional music from the 1940's. Alternatively, sit in the back of the tea house and ask to try out some tea samples. You can browse and shop for traditional tea sets, tea strainers, tea cups and mugs here. Snack on some samples of their wasabi fried peas while browsing and make sure to get their Rewards Card, where you get 1 free drink after the purchase of 10 drinks.
Address: Ten Ren Tea, 949 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108 (b/t Jackson St & Washington St)
The first time I experienced Bambu, I remember declaring, "This takes bubble tea to the next level". They have a variety of options including the standard milk teas and smoothies but I would always go for their traditional Vietnamese-inspired "Ché" Dessert drinks with the most unique topping combinations you'll ever encounter in this world. Some toppings include: red tapioca, pandan jelly, grass jelly, dark coffee bricks, mung bean, red bean, palm seed, basil seed, taro paste, lychee and jackfruit.
Their drinks include fresh coconut juice or coconut milk as the base and shaved ice. You can even order fresh coconut flesh or homemade Coconut Pudding (made from their coconut juice and flesh); this is a great after-dinner snack that's slightly sweet, light and refreshing.
Feel free to tweak the sweetness of your drink too. Don't forget to check in on Yelp and get a free Large upgrade from your usual Medium size. Feel to swap out any of the ingredients from any of the drinks for some other alternative with no extra charge! Make sure to sign in with Five Stars Rewards to accumulate rewards. Parking can be a pain sometimes but if you're up for it, park in the Citibank customer parking lot across the street to it's right, and if you leave within 30 minutes or so, no one is going to come after you. Yay for free parking, right?
Any of the Ché Dessert Drinks are a must-have; I recommend #6 Fruit Addict (lychee, longan, red tapioca, jackfruit, palm seed, jello, pandan jelly, coconut flesh & coconut milk); I usually swap the longan, jackfruit and jello and replace it with extra pandan jelly, taro and basil seed.
Address: BAMBU, 6050 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94121 (b/t 24th Ave & 25th Ave)
Neighborhood: Outer Richmond
This little shop with a modern, minimalistic and organic look and feel usually has a long line during at any hour of the day. Their upstairs seating offers a nice view of the building across the street and is great for lounging. The seats downstairs are more bar style so they are higher up from the ground than the upstairs regular seating and sofas.
They serve your drinks in minimalistic glass bottles with their logo in raised letters and feel free to take a cap and take this drink to-go. You get to keep these glass bottles and when you bring back your old bottle, you get 10% discount every time. My favorite is their Fresh Milks as they do blend fresh fruit with their milk; it's just lighter than a smoothie and denser/milkier than your usual milk tea. Their Honeydew Fresh Fruit Milk is the perfect fruit drink that is creamy yet light and fruity.
Their Nutella Milk is also amazing; you can really taste the aromatic hazelnut and chocolate flavors; it's perfectly sweetened, light and creamy. Nutella fans, I'm sure your mind is made up by now. Their Mango Green Tea with Bubbles & Lychee Jelly OR Peach Yakult Green Tea with Bubbles is also a favorite of mine when I'm craving some refreshing fruit tea that doesn't have any cream or milk inside. The chewiness of the tapioca pearls and lychee jelly will give you a fun textual contrast; the bubbles are soft, chewy spherical while the lychee jelly is slightly sweeter, chewier and rectangular.
Address: Plentea, 341 Kearny St San Francisco, CA 94108 (b/t Bush St & Pine St)
This is a new favorite of mine. The shop is pretty basic, nothing too fancy but it has no line and offers some great refreshing drinks. This is a bit
Their High Mountain Oolong Black Tea with Salty Creama may first sound like a really risky option considering you are mixing in some savory flavor with some sweet milk tea, but have an open mind and give this a go because I certainly didn't regret it! If you are not feeling like a risk taker today, then get the High Mountain Oolong Black Tea with Sweet Creama; this is the same delicious drink but minus the salty flavor. Their other classic Jasmine Milk Tea with Bubbles & their Tie Guan Yin Milk Tea with Bubbles are also classic and tasty; their teas are fresh and aromatic.
Their Fresh Fruit Tea (Strawberry & Lemon) is also the most refreshing after-dinner drink I've ever had in the city. The tartness of the lemon balances out the subtle sweetness of the strawberry puree in perfect sweet and sour harmony. It's iced so it just tastes like one refreshing tea drink that is crisp, cold and smooth.
Address: Little Sweet, 3836 Geary Blvd San Francisco, CA 94118 (b/t 2nd Ave & 3rd Ave)
Neighborhood: Inner Richmond
This popular and spacious dessert shop is large enough to fit 20 tables, and is a very popular spot for young folks. You'll find Taiwanese and Hong Kong pop music videos playing in the background; many come to this place after hot pot or ramen from across the street.
Get the Mango Juice with Coconut Milk, Sago and Mango Chunks (above, left). For all mango lovers, this is heaven. The tartness of the mangos balances out perfectly with the sweetness and creaminess of the coconut milk. The mango chunks and sago on the bottom are fun and chewy (like mini clear bubbles) offer an amazing textual contrast compared to the smooth mango juice. Alternatively, you can also get their Oreo Milk Shake with Bubbles (above, right); this is perfect for those who love that classic American cookie; it is mixed with ice cream and milk; add bubbles and you've got yourself an Asian-American fusion dessert drink.
Address: Creations Dessert House, 5217 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118 (b/t 17th Ave & 16th Ave)
Neighborhood: Inner Richmond
This little shop has been my favorite place to get bubbles; their Honey Boba is by far the tastiest bubbles I've had in the entire Bay Area so far. They sweeten the honey bubbles with fresh honey and make several batches throughout the day; unlike other boba shops who only make one big batch in the mornings, Infinitea really cares about your tapioca experience. The boba is warm, perfectly chewy, not too soft or hard, and has the perfect amount of sweetness, even till the last sip. Order any of their drinks on the menu but make sure to get bubbles with each and every one.
I am particularly fond of their Ginger Honey Green Tea with Honey Boba; this refreshing drink is light and soothing, it's perfect for the summertime or when you're not feeling so well. Their Fresh Watermelon with Strawberry Popping Boba is also divine; its equally refreshing, sweet and slightly tart. Each little boba bursts into strawberry goodness as soon as you break open the fragile outer shell.
They also have a variety of really pretty sounding drink names under their "Premium Teas" or shall I say "Love Teas" section, for 12 out of 15 of the drink options here have the word "love" in it. It's just humorous to have you declare that you had "Love At First Sight" or "Passionate Love" today on Instagram. I must say that I did enjoy Love At First Sight as the Rose, Raspberry and Blackberry flavors blended very seamlessly with one another, while not overpowering the tea itself. It's on the lighter and less sweet side, which pairs exceptionally well with the sweet honey boba.
What pairs really well with sweet boba? Savory snacks! They offer curated Snack Combos in 4 options; some popular finger foods include their Pepper Crispy Chicken, Popcorn Chicken, Sweet Chili Chicken Wings, Baby Octopus, Lobster Balls, Fish Balls & Jalapeno Poppers. Their Pepper Crispy Chicken is well-seasoned, slightly spicy from the pepper, moist and crunchy; it satisfies that deep-fried food craving that you might be having. Make sure to get in on their Rewards Program and get a stamp card where when you buy 10 snacks or drinks, you get 1 free. Check in on Yelp to get 10% off your entire order. Watch out for some of their Happy Hour Deals where regular drinks go for just $1.99 and Large sizes are $2.49; that's a neat price considering most drinks are $4 - $6 on average.
Address: Infiniti Tea, 351 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94121 (b/t 18th Ave & 17th Ave)
Neighborhood: Inner Richmond
Expect long lines for both the Mission and Union Square locations for Boba Guys. Their brand, shop environments and product packaging are all cohesive in the sense that they are simple, clean, modern and minimalistic. Their drinks are free from artificial ingredients and they never use any powders. Their teas also come from premium sources; they are never from any powders either.
They pride themselves on using fresh products like milk from the Strauss Family Creamery and almond milk from Califia Farms; they do not use any fructose, only housemade syrups. Both locations in the city are so conveniently located next to parks (Mission Dolores Park & Union Square Park), so even though these are grab and go shops, you get to take these delightful drinks to eat with your favorite sandwich.
The most standard Classic Milk Tea & Green Milk Tea are both standard; I personally recommend the Hong Style Milk Tea with Bubbles if you're looking for a more classic taste that is more creamier and more flavorful than the Classic Milk Tea. If you want more of a fruity spin on your classic milk tea, then get the Coconut Green Premium Milk Tea with Almond Jelly or the Lychee Green Premium Milk Tea with Bubbles. The almond jelly is light and subtle in flavor; it's a great alternative to bubbles.
The Muscat Oolong Premium Milk Tea with Pandan Jelly is one of the most expensive items on the menu due to it's high quality Muscat Oolong Tea. This milk tea is extremely exotic and special in it's taste; the pandan jelly is light and slightly sweet, paired with the muscat aroma, creaminess of the milk and premium tea, and you are in bubble tea heaven.
Check the "Specials" on the wall to see if any drinks call out to you. The Strawberry Matcha Latte is quite special; the matcha and milk tea are in complete harmony and the housemade strawberry puree is slightly tart and pairs well with the sweetness of the matcha flavor. It's refreshingly sweet and precisely layered. Besides delicious milk teas, they also offer fresh tea from their other brand, Tea People, as well as fun snacks like macarons and cotton candy in unique flavors.
Neighborhood: Union Square
This is a new spot that has opened up in Russian Hill. This Muscat Oolong Green Tea with Crystal Boba is quite interesting. The aromatic muscat grape back palate will lingers and blends quite well with the light green tea. The Crystal Boba is similar to the standard bubbles, but are slightly harder and has a bit of a crunch to them. They're also light and less chewy. The flavors of the tea are in harmony with the Crystal Boba so you're all set for a refreshing after-lunch or post-dinner drink.
Address: Teaspoon, 2125 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94109 (b/t Broadway & Vallejo St)
Neighborhood: Russian Hill
Why settle for just bubbles when you can get as many toppings as you want for free? At Teaway, you get to fill your cup with as many toppings as you would like; let yourself go and choose from as many 1 variety up to 20 varieties of toppings. Be sure to make room for the tea though! That is why their line on the cup is so helpful; it helps ensure that you don't fill your entire cup up with toppings and leave no room for the tea. There is no other boba shop that offers this offering of unlimited toppings.
Any of their classic Black Milk Tea, Green Milk Tea or fruit flavored teas like their Mango Green Tea or Strawberry Green Tea will do; the highlights are the various toppings that you get to pick! I also love their Guava Green Tea with Bubbles & Egg Pudding; the sweet and tropical guava fruit flavors blend so well with the green tea. Bursting boba in a variety of flavors, regular-sized bubbles, miniature bubbles, lychee jelly, combination jelly, mango jelly, grass jelly and pudding are among some of the options offered. Their Oreo Shake with Bubbles is also deliciously creamy; you get to have your milk and cookies simultaneously. The bubbles offer a great textual contrast to the shake.
Their Popcorn Chicken is one of the best I've had; it's infused with fresh basil leaves so the chicken is quite flavorful and aromatic.
Address: Teaway, 2250 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122 (b/t 24th Ave & 23rd Ave)
Neighborhood: Outer Sunset
The key to the best bubble tea is the bubbles; and if you're craving those sweet and delicious little balls, you can also make them at home.
Here's a video of the fool-proof Thai Iced Tea Bubble Tea Recipe by Byron Talbott that I absolutely love:
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Below is what 4 pounds of honey boba looks like.
I'm a SF Bay Area based food photographer and blogger. I love documenting all things food related, from the taste to the experience, from the chefs and restaurant owners to their stories and journeys.