‘I adore it a lot’: Pitt college students share their favourite Oakland boba tea retailers

Sacun Tang grew up getting bubble tea from a Japanese market in his hometown of Philadelphia. When he came to Pittsburgh as a first-year student, Tang continued that tradition by grabbing some bubble tea when he was out on Forbes Avenue.

“For me growing up, it was always like a staple,” Tang, an undeclared junior, said. “I find that when I’ve had a long day, or I want to treat myself to something, I’ll run down to Fuku and grab a nice drink.”

Located on Forbes Avenue, Fuku Tea is one of the bubble tea shops near campus that students frequent during the semester. Bubble tea — also known as boba pearl milk tea or boba tea — is a drink that originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. It’s a combination of milk tea and tapioca pearls, and is popular in Asian communities. Students in Pittsburgh can visit a few different shops close to Pitt’s campus to try bubble tea for themselves.

Before the pandemic, some of the places students visited to get bubble tea on campus were Fuku Tea, Chick’n Bubbly and the Kung Fu Tea truck, among many others. While Fuku Tea and Chick’n Bubbly are small, locally owned businesses, Kung Fu Tea is a national chain with a location in Squirrel Hill. Kung Fu Tea used to have a truck that served tea on campus, but it is not currently in use.

While bubble tea is often associated with the tapioca pearls that can be found in the bottom, Kevin Liang, the manager at Fuku Tea, said bubble tea got its name because it’s made by shaking tea with ice and milk in it, causing bubbles to form.

“Bubble tea is just tea with ice and shaken up, and then when they shake it, they make it a bubble format,” Liang said. “Taiwanese people created more toppings for the inside and they can add a fruit flavor and then they put in milk.”

Tang said boba can be made from many different types of teas, or even smoothies. Despite the options, he said the drink is still an acquired taste.

“It’s just a mixture of any tea — though it doesn’t have to be tea, it could be a smoothie, it could be black dragon tea, jasmine tea, green tea,” Tang said. “I’ve seen all types of variations — and then they just add tapioca. It’s not for everyone. I know that much. It’s either you like it or you don’t.”

Ashley Martin, a junior psychology major and frequenter of local boba shops, first tried boba at Chick’n Bubbly. But she said Fuku Tea is her favorite, because they have many different teas and toppings available for people to try that change over the course of a year — everything from watermelon in the summer to cranberry in the winter.

Liang said Fuku’s staff try to help people who haven’t tried boba before pick through their assortment of flavors and options and give suggestions based on what the customer says they’re in the mood for.

“A staffer will ask people what kind of tea they want —  we have a lot of choices in our store — we ask, ‘Do you want milk tea, or do you want just fruit flavored tea?’” Liang said. “And we will give them a suggestion.”

Fuku Tea has two locations, one on Forbes Avenue and one on South Craig Street. Meanwhile, Chick’n Bubbly is located on Oakland Avenue, and — as the name suggests  — also offers various types of Korean fried chicken with its bubble tea, as well as sides like takoyaki and pork kyoza. They are currently only open for takeout and delivery.

Martin had several recommendations from different shops for people trying bubble tea for the first time — the Taro milk tea from Fuku, the black sugar milk tea with tapioca pearls from Chick’n Bubbly and the black milk tea from Kung Fu Tea. Tang said he would recommend Fuku Tea’s bubble tea smoothies for first-timers.

Now that things are beginning to open up again, these locations have seen more business than they did in 2020, according to Liang.

“[It’s been] a little bit better than last year,” Liang said. “We have a lot of students in here, but right now because mostly they’re doing online classes, so they don’t come to the campus.”

Martin said one of the best things about boba is the sheer variety of flavors and combinations someone can get.

“There’s so many variations and combinations that you can do with bubble tea, whether it be milk tea, or you could do like some people do smoothies, or like coffees. So that’s what I would put the most emphasis on,” Martin said. “There’s just so much that is possible for boba and that’s why I love it so much.”

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