I’ve always loved tapioca, the starch wrung from the cassava root, a plant also known as yuca or manioc. Whether it was used in the Brazilian cheese balls pao de queijo, or in the instant tapioca pudding my mom made from a boxed mix, I came to crave the bouncy consistency it confers in the absence of actual flavor. But I always drew the line at bubble tea, a beverage said to have been invented in the 1980s in Taiwan and heavily influenced by the Hong Kong milk tea culture.
For someone weaned on real fruit juice, the bubble tea parlors that popped up in the past held little attraction. Concocted of powders, mysterious syrups, squiggly jellies, milk or non-dairy creamer, and lots of sugar, along with tea, these beverages were too fussy and too sweet, with flavors that tasted artificial — and often were.
But, sure I loved the bouncy boba — tapioca balls the size of swollen ball bearings, sucked up through a straw so wide and ostentatious that it suggests the tapioca was the whole point.
Today, the proliferation of bubble tea establishments in the city, along with restaurants that serve bubble tea as a sideline, has been dizzying. Chains like Vivi, Kung Fu, Tiger Sugar, Ten Ren, Gong Cha, and Boba Guys seem to be opening stores all over town at a fever pace. And some of them even boast that they eschew the powdered teas of the past, emphasizing that they brew teas to order or use fresh fruit.
One of the latest newfangled shops is the Alley, the first East Coast branch of a fast-growing Taiwanese empire that since its opening in 2015 has established 300 stores in locales as far flung as Canada, France, Australia, and California. The store enjoys a prime location right on Cooper Square across from Cooper Union’s historic Foundation Building, famous as the site of an Abraham Lincoln address. Since making its debut this month, a line of young people regularly mobs the place.
The space is laid out like a small figure-eight, with a back room boasting picture windows that look out onto an adjacent pocket park. A counter — which looks too small for the number of employees working there — dispenses the tea. The activity behind it might remind you of an apothecary, as the preparers wield measuring beakers, shallow ladles, pestles for muddling, sieves, spoons, and stirrers like junior pharmacists. It’s a scientific operation, and the purity and expense of the ingredients is said to be one of the Alley’s hallmarks.
Seen on cups and signs, the trademark is a stag with prominent branching horns, as if borrowed from a ski lodge in Canada. The ingredients include pure cane sugar and tapioca pearls manufactured by the company. The number of available beverages is limited to 14 in five categories, though most can be customized with the quantity of ice, amount of sugar, type of tea used (Assam or oolong), addition of coconut or rainbow jellies, and whether served hot or cold.
Nevertheless, five signature beverages are prominently displayed on the electric menu board, and most customers seem to stick with those. Foremost is a cold beverage called “brown sugar Deerioca crème brulee milk” ($6). When ordered, there’s lots of whirring, stirring, and pouring behind the counter. The last step involves putting your plastic cup in a countertop contraption that simultaneously seals the top with paper and plastic and wraps the cup in further plastic with a stag’s head logo.
What you get is a beverage with brown and white layers that sag into each other, making for a striking appearance. “Stir it up before you drink it,” the counter guy tells me. The “crème brulee” part adds a French touch, but also lets you know there’s no actual “cream” in there — the same dodge used by non-dairy products all over America. “The foam on top is the crème brulee,” the guy tells me when I ask, though it closely resembles the dense “milk cap” or “cheese tea” found at other chains.
Nevertheless, this beverage is a delight: The root beer-colored boba is bouncy, and the burnt sugar syrup that sinks to the bottom has a flavor reminiscent of melted chocolate caramels from a top-flight chocolatier. I actually found it more fun to drink it only partially mixed, so each sip was different.
I tried four others on two visits. Anything with that dark, brown sugar syrup is worth trying, though I found the chocolate version (brown sugar Deerioca cocoa milk, $6) not quite chocolatey enough for my taste. But it does function as a superior version of school-level chocolate milk, and then there’s the tapioca adding to the experience.
Speaking of boba, the Alley trio milk tea ($5) was another favorite — conventional sweetened milk tea such as you might find in Hong Kong, only containing squiggly coconut and rainbow jellies, all of which must be sucked up through the straw, since no spoons are provided. The jellies have little flavor, but the texture like super-thickened Jello-O is reason enough to try them. The brewed taste of the Assam tea can also be detected through the creamy sweetness, though mellower oolong tea would likely be less prominent in the mix.
Fruit juice lovers will find a section of only two beverages, in orange and strawberry flavors. Containing no boba, the orange lulu has a profusion of real orange segments macerated in the bottom by the pestle-wielding preparers, but the liquid that surrounds them will remind you of Tang. As a tea lover, I had to try the plain tea, of which two varieties are offered in paper takeaway cups such as those found at coffee bars.
Assam and oolong are available, and I picked the former. It arrived strong and steaming. But when I took a sip, I found it had been heavily sugared, which qualifies in the bubble tea world as moderate. Yes, you can ask them to hold the sugar, but given the price ($4.50), you’re better off getting plain tea from a deli.
Still, the Alley is the first bubble tea parlor I’ve considered visiting more than once, and it’s the brown sugar syrup beverages I’ll remember and go back for — especially the best selling brown sugar Deerioca crème brulee milk. Though I’ll always wonder, what would Abraham Lincoln have thought?