Boba smoothies have long been staples at pho restaurants: What better way to get super-sloshy than to suck down a slushy drink after slurping a big vat of noodle soup? Those boba balls, typically pearls of tapioca starch, make for a goofy good time when combined with a brightly colored frozen concoction — whether purple taro, green avocado or orange mango.
Lately, though, boba smoothies, bubble teas and other slippery sips have been going solo at tiny shops wedged into strip malls all over town. The recent wave isn't necessarily Vietnamese; newer teahouses have come to Denver via Taiwan and Hong Kong, bringing different flavors and textures, along with a wider range of strong-brewed tea and coffee. Some even serve amusing sweet or savory snacks to round out the experience. But with so many joining the scene, will the bubble tea bubble soon burst?
Here are five tea shops around town that deserve to stick around:
Hong Kong Cafe
10890 East Dartmouth Avenue
Hong Kong Cafe was in the advance guard of tea shops, opening nearly three years ago on the border of Denver and Aurora. It's also one of the most diverse in terms of the overall food and drink experience; while the beverage menu is not as large as at other spots, you'll certainly find a range of curious concoctions, some loaded with sweet red beans and others with dark cubes of grass jelly. First-timers should go with a classic Hong Kong-style iced milk tea, a bracingly strong brew tempered with a dose of sweetened condensed milk. A case of the jitters is almost a sure thing, given the caffeine and sugar. The cafe also has a boggling slate of lunch and dinner options, including items not found on standard Chinese restaurant menus. Butter-drenched French toast made with thick-cut white bread, breaded pork chops bathed in a surprisingly old-school Italian tomato sauce, and simple ham-and-egg sandwiches are among the items that will strike Westerners as unusual but are part of standard cafe culture in Hong Kong. Other standouts include salt-and-pepper tofu, breaded and fried shrimp toast, and delicious scallion pancakes.
Kung Fu Tea
6365 East Hampden Avenue, 720-370-8888
1121 Broadway, Boulder, 720-638-3470
This New York City chain, modeled after Taiwanese bubble tea shops, recently came to metro Denver. Variety is Kung Fu's calling card, with an almost intimidating selection of hot and cold beverages. Uncommon fruit flavors (when was the last time you had winter melon?), puddings, jellies, tapioca balls, sweet beans and popping bubbles present so many possible combinations that rookies might stall out at the counter for minutes.
For the best experience, start with a traditional milk tea (oolong, black or green will be familiar to most) and balance it with popping mango bubbles. Once you get the hang of it, you can delve into slushes, punches, snow creams and yogurt drinks. There's not much to eat here, but the multi-layered matcha crepe cake is a good bet — if you want to double down on the sweet stuff.
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1690 Champa Street
Tea Cloud is a little cluttered and dim compared to the bright, lively Kung Fu Tea. But an impressive collection of loose teas (along with posters extolling the many health benefits of consuming tea) is perfect for hard-core aficionados who find themselves searching for a fix downtown. The bubble teas don't have the fresh, bold flavors you'll find at other shops, though, and there's no food (some steamed buns and other snacks were previously available, but those have been put on hold). Plan to take your cup to go, because the only seating is a wide windowsill with pillows.
Volcano Tea House
2781 South Parker Road, Aurora
Walking into Volcano (located in the row of shops on the east side of Aurora's H Mart) is like stepping into an animated kids' show. The walls and furniture are done in pastel pinks, blues and greens, with geometric shapes stenciled around the dining room. Most of the chairs seem unusually low-slung, too, but are probably just perfect for young ones. The menu doesn't look quite as overwhelming as the one at Kung Fu Tea, but there are still several styles (tea, milk tea, ice-blended and specialty), with bobas, jellies, puddings and sweet beans as add-ins. Fried finger foods — both American and Taiwanese (so you can snack on popcorn chicken and cuttlefish balls) — should help balance the sugar rush. If you're a social-media addict, be sure to take a selfie in front of the angel wings on the wall.
Pekoe Sip House
Three Boulder locations
This trio of Boulder tea shops may be the least intimidating of the bunch: You'll find pastries, sandwiches, açaí bowls and other breakfast and lunch fare to go with an outstanding variety of loose-leaf teas. In fact, if the idea of sucking chewy boba balls through a fat straw simply has no appeal for you, there's still plenty to like, including espresso drinks, chai, sipping chocolates (the trendy new way to talk about hot cocoa) and bottled drinks. These spots definitely throw off a vibe more Boulder than Taiwan or Hong Kong (you may even have to dodge a stroller or two on your way to the counter), and as if to prove their Boulder cred, the three Pekoe Sip Houses all carry raw and gluten-free desserts and pastries.