By: Stephanie Garr
There may be no other city outside of Asia that’s as thirsty for bubble tea as San Francisco. Now, while it may seem like a relatively simple drink, the fun comes in its near-endless flavor possibilities. Since bubble tea’s inception in Taiwan in the early 1980s, it’s morphed into myriad variations—and maybe just as many nicknames: Call it bubble, boba, pearl tea, milk tea, tapioca tea, momi tea, or QQ (Taiwanese slang for “chewy”), to name a few.
A quick tip for beginners: Note that the “bubble” in bubble tea refers to the foam that rises to the top after shaking up the typical base of tea, ice, milk, and sugar or syrup, and not the bubble-esque tapioca pearls (or boba) that are often added. Now that you’re armed with the necessary knowledge, go explore these 8 best spots for bubble tea in San Francisco.
1. Teaspoon: 2125 Polk Street
Serving fresh, seasonal, specialty handcrafted teas, this quaint spot in Russian Hill has a formidable menu of teas and toppings. Go for the traditional House Milk Tea blended with organic cream, or for a lighter, more refreshing cleanse, try the Grasshopper (lychee iced green tee mixed with cucumber juice). For an all-out luxurious sip, we recommend the White Crystal, a white grape oolong tea with chewy translucent pearls made of plant-based agar, or the romantic Rose Petal Creama, infused with real rose petals. And don’t forget to save room for a decadent cup of snow ice. Sample Teaspoon’s tea on our Russian Hill Food Tour!
2. Boba Guys: 8 Octavia Street #308 (Hayes Valley); 3491 19th Street (Mission); 429 Stockton Street (Union Square); 1522 Fillmore Street (Japantown)
These guys are so confident in their boba, they proudly boast of “serving the highest quality bubble milk tea in the world.” And it’s hard to argue with this claim, as they diligently source their loose leaf teas from around the globe and steep them in-house, before adding organic, California-produced milk (or almond or soy), and fructose-free, housemade syrups. Try out one of their premium milk teas, choose your sweetness level, and add tapioca balls or their homemade almond or grass jelly for that satisfying chew.
3. Wonderful Desserts & Café: 2035 Irving Street
This veteran café and candy shop in the Inner Sunset has long been in the bubble tea biz, which means they’ve had plenty of time to perfect their craft and expand their menu—which they do by handwriting new items and sticking them up to the wall. The hardest part is making your decision, with tapioca flavors including coconut, peanut, honeydew, red bean, chocolate, and many more.
4. Purple Kow: 3620 Balboa Street
Expect lines at this Outer Richmond café, which specializes in milk teas, jelly drinks, and tea cremas. The toppings here are the main attractions, from green tea boba and grass jelly to aloe vera, pudding, and boba noodle. Come here for the popular D3 drink: a decadent concoction of iced milk tea, caramel pudding and boba, all sweetened to your liking.
5. Fifty/Fifty Coffee & Tea: 3157 Geary Boulevard
This minimalist Richmond District café’s slicked-up interior turns boba-sipping into the truly stylish affair it deserves. Supplement your Ritual coffee buzz with a boba-fied latte, which adds tapioca pearls to modernized classics like lavender earl gray and honey coconut. Come on the weekends to slurp it all down with a Dynamo Donut—the true breakfast of champions.
6. Plentea: 341 Kearny Street
Around the corner from the Chinatown gate, Plentea sees plenty of crowds—especially during the lunch hour. The eco-conscious spot uses only USDA-certified organic loose leaf teas, real cane sugar, and fresh fruits, and serves your handcrafted tea in an elegant reusable glass jar. (Bonus: Bring that bottle back and you’ll get 10% off on your next purchase.) Choose from a selection of oolong, green, or black teas and add toppings like taro pudding, egg pudding, lychee jelly, and aloe. Or go all-out luxurious with the Sea Salt Creama Oolong or Nutella Milk Tea.
7. i-Tea: 253 Kearny Street (Union Square); 2150 Irving Street (Outer Sunset)
Just down the street from Plentea sits another respectable bubble tea shop that sees just as long lines. This Bay Area mini-franchise has one of the more impressive bubble tea selections in the region. Go for a No. 8 (double jelly and boba) or the 3G Milk Tea, which combines boba, pudding, and grass jelly. Or go simple and sassy with Japanese Genmaicha and a topping of popping boba or matcha pudding.
8. Sweet a little: Delivery
Why wait in line for a bubble tea when you can get it freshly brewed and delivered right to your doorstep? This is Sweet a little’s genius philosophy, which has caught on quickly in San Francisco. Each of their teas is made fresh to order with premium loose leaf teas steeped in small batches. Try the creamy Original Black Milk Tea or the refreshing Passionfruit Black Iced Tea and add toppings like agar boba or lychee jelly for a well-balanced treat.