The Fung Brothers, the rappers and comedians credited by the mayor of Monterey Park with doing more than the Chamber of Commerce to promote the culinary culture of the San Gabriel Valley, didn't grow up in California. Andrew and David Fung are natives of Kent; they moved south last year after graduating from the University of Washington with business degrees and entertainment industry dreams.
David Fung told KCET their relocation was inspired by the late-night roast duck dinners, shaved ice searches and boba obsessions that define the area's young Asian-American lifestyle. "People spent 7-8 hours at these cafes and did the same thing again the next day," he said. "That was unbelievable. In Seattle, there are definitely Asians, but we had to eat happy hour at Applebee's like everyone else."
In their most popular YouTube rap, The Fung Brothers describe the 626 as a place "where kids drink more milk tea than liquor." Patronizing boba shops - sometimes four or five times a day - is a staple of San Gabriel Valley living.
Since boba seems likely to soon become a bigger deal around here (check out our recent post on Drive Thru Boba, a new scratch-made tea stand in Bellevue), I asked the Fungs to school me on the beverage. Read on for all you need to know about Jasmine milk tea, marinated boba and the prospects for an outbreak of boba tattoos.
HR: I always thought my choices at the boba counter were milk, pearls and sweetener. But I was recently astounded by the range of options offered by a vendor doing great business at a night market in Richmond, B.C. This guy had a flavor menu that would put a drive-through daiquiri stand to shame. Has anybody tried them all? And if I did, would I be able to differentiate between them? What are the can't-miss boba flavors?
TFB: I'm sure someone has tried them all. And you would definitely be able to differentiate the flavors because they're all different. You have regular milk tea, jasmine, fruit, passion, almond, green tea milk tea etc. If you can't tell the flavors apart after, then that boba spot is wack. Every boba spot is going to have their own specialty. A good way to gauge a boba spot is by first having the standard: the classic "milk tea with boba" (which is black tea, milk, sweetener and boba).
What about the add-ons? Do I need small pearls, large pearls, jelly, red beans and pudding? What's the artful approach to boba accouterments?
Generally, pudding and boba are paired with milk teas. Jelly, aloe fit better with fruit teas. These are the generally accepted ways of doing things, but then again, if you want to shake up the world and put pudding in your fruit tea, that's okay too. We won't judge you.
The vendor in Canada was using real milk, but I understand most cafes in Seattle use milk powder. What's the deal with that?
We think that Richmond BC and the 626 (San Gabriel Valley) in SoCal are ahead of the curve as far as advancements in boba goes because there is so much competition it forces people to be innovative. Most places in the 626 (where tea houses are plentiful) use real milk which tastes better than powder. Using powder may be a business decision to serve those people that are lactose intolerant. Also, it's a lot easier to keep powder around that fresh milk. The demand for high-end, high-quality boba maybe isn't there in Seattle yet. Out here, it's evolved into an artform like how coffee is in Seattle.
Other than peeking behind the counter for powders, how do I know when I've found a great boba cafe? What are the best indicators of boba quality?
Fresh, soft boba. You know it's good when you can feel the warmth of the fresh boba at the bottom of the cup and the coolness from the milk tea on top before it's all mixed together. The flavor of the boba is important too. In the 626, a lot of spots serve "honey boba," which is boba marinated in honey right before it's served. Also, you should rate a spot at how accurately they customize your order. Boba shops are pretty straightforward, so whatever service they do provide should be good.
Do y'all have standard boba orders?
We order either the special fruit tea with aloe or the Jasmine milk tea with boba. Those are our go to items.
So any more tips for making the most of a boba experience?
Most of the experience would be contributed to the company you're with or the atmosphere of the spot. Since differences in boba drinks can be very minute amongst the best boba shops, it's going to come down to how the place makes you feel. It's similar to the bar scene: Once everyone has the same micro-brews on tap, how do you differentiate? Price, atmosphere and people.
Finally, how important is boba in contemporary Asian-American food culture? Why should American-born eaters obsessed with xiao long bao and cumin lamb noodles care about tea?
It's important to note that the word "boba" comes from the Chinese ?? which is the size of boba that perfectly fits through the big boba straws. While bubble, tapioca, and pearl are also used around the world, the word boba dominates Southern California. For example, most people in Seattle call it bubble tea. Coming to SoCal, a lot of young kids looked at us funny when we said "bubble tea".
Everyone had thought boba was just a fad, but fuel by the Asian-American demographic, tea houses are opening up EVERYWHERE, especially in the 626. Boba is no joke. It's the new, trendy drink that serves as an ambassador of our culture. A lot of people look at Chinese/Taiwanese culture as very ancient, but boba is one of the hippest thing to happen recently. The most popular Asian American hang out around any big college campus is the boba/bubble tea shop.
Hello Kitty originated in Japan and was big in the Japanese/APA community first. But now, we see tons of White, Hispanics and Black Americans rockin Hello Kitty bags, key chains...even tattoos. Maybe down the road, we'll see boba tattoos?