If I had to guess, millions upon millions of dollars, mostly from the disposable incomes of high school and college kids, have been spent on tapioca drinks over the past decade.
That's a lot of piggy banks.
Is it any wonder why Tapioca Express and Lollicup franchises have popped up everywhere like zits on a teenager?
The highest concentration of the breakout is the San Gabriel Valley. This area is the oily "T-zone" of boba drink shops.
Here at the Lollicup on Valley Blvd., plop down $2, and a bubbly, Asian Hilary Duff will go on back and make you a "Tapioca Milk Tea." A spoonful of black tapioca pearls is dropped into a clear plastic cup and an opaque, tan-colored liquid is poured on by a ladle from a vat. The cup is deposited into a steel contraption, gears whir, and the top is heat-sealed with a plastic membrane.
You grip an oversized straw with a hole-diameter big enough to suck up a marble, and like Norman Bates, you plunge it straight down, piercing through the seal with a satisfying "pop."
The first sip is a surge of icy-cold milk tea, which actually tastes more like thinned chocolate milk than tea. Then comes the "thump, thump, thump" as the chewy, gummy tapioca pearls are propelled up the straw and pummel the back of your throat like bullets on Kevlar.
Choking hazard? You bet. And if you suck hard enough, it's entirely possible that one might shoot up and lodge itself in your brain. At least that's what Tony Bourdain thought when he tried his first cup of boba tea in a recent episode of No Reservations.
I, for one, have outgrown the boba habit, partaking maybe once every few months when before I couldn't go three days without getting a hit. Even now, I opted for the more soothing "Pudding Milk Tea," which has been statistically shown to have a lower incidence of death-by-asphyxiation. The pudding, which settles restfully at the bottom of the cup is custard-based; smooth and silky with a clean finish.
Milk tea isn't the only thing you can get at these shops either. Lollicup, for instance, has a menu so long it reads like a tome of Asian drinks, boasting more fruit flavors than Starburst. The types of concoctions these teenaged employees must have memorized rivals a professional New York bartender's.
If that weren't enough, this particular Lollicup also offers generous bowls of shaved ice topped with gelatinous cubes of agar, lychees, rose syrup and candy-sweet red bean.
You can even order a full meal of rice and meats to pair with your drink and dessert if you're feeling the pangs of hunger preempting your thirst.
That afternoon at Lollicup, all the couches and tables were taken up by gaggles of young Asians. It's a hang-out place, like drugstore soda shops used to be, where giggly Asian girls trade gossip about boys. The boys, in the meantime, play cards and read Japanese manga. The vibe here is Starbucks mixed with a splash of Hello Kitty.
So kids, if your parents left you some extra allowance, or if you feel that you didn't have enough carbohydrates in your lunch, flip the bird at Dr. Atkins with a drink full of starchy balls of tapioca at a Lollicup near you.
301 W Valley Blvd # 101
San Gabriel, CA 91776
14805 Jeffrey Rd # A
Irvine, CA 92618
Note: Lollicup franchises of varying qualities can be found throughout the Southland.