Eating Adventures

Here Comes The Latest Invasion of Weird Drinks

Courtesy of Happy Lemon
You've sipped so many boba smoothies that you can now suck chewy little spheres through a fat straw without inhaling one into your lungs. You've dabbled in spicy, tangy cheladas, so the sight of shrimp or even beef jerky as a garnish isn't alarming. You've even dared to drink the dreaded durian smoothie, and survived without making a stink. What's next in the world of blender beverages, layered teas and other concoctions designed for those with a sweet tooth, an iron gut or a yearning for a good brain freeze?

Step right up for a cheese tea, camo-swirled milkshake or red bean and black rice slush.

What's behind the emergence of all these visually stunning blends and bold flavors? Traditional Asian ingredients such as lychee and ube (purple yam) have made their way into the mainstream, thanks to global travelers and émigrés. And younger consumers are constantly on the lookout for novelty and social media-friendly fare. As a result, dessert soups, bubble teas and mangonadas are no longer stuck in their places of origin; they've made it into the mainstream.

These three new Denver beverage bars will have all the craziness you're craving:
click to enlarge
Courtesy of Happy Lemon

Happy Lemon

9686 East Arapahoe Road, Greenwood Village
Coming in late spring

The words "tea" and "cheese" might seem to indicate an afternoon snack of British origin, but "cheese tea" conjures a less genteel image, especially when those ingredients are combined in a single drink. Still, millions of cheese tea fans have popularized the unusual beverage, which was invented in Shanghai less than a decade ago and quickly spread to other Asian cities and then to the U.S. One of the big names in the business is Happy Lemon, which will soon open in Greenwood Village. The company began with more traditional bubble teas and lemon teas in Taiwan in 2006 before creating its own version of cheese tea, and it now has multiple outposts in the U.S. Eric Lee and Ke Zhao are the new area developers for Colorado, and they plan to open several Happy Lemon shops in metro Denver.

The topping on Happy Lemon's cheese tea is a slightly sweet whipped cheese with rock salt added for a savory note, Lee explains. Customers can order black or green tea, among other options, and the cheese tea is sipped from the cup rather than through a straw, so that the sweet, salty, creamy flavors of the cheese topping mix with the bitter tea for a unique combination of tastes.

Happy Lemon offers several other drink styles, including its signature lemon teas. "We have really good 'Arnold Palmers,' to use the layman's term," Lee notes. "Only we use fresh-squeezed lemonade and high-quality tea."

Indeed, Happy Lemon's teas are all brewed from whole tea leaves, and the company also equips its stores with proprietary boba machines. According to Lee, the machine "controls and cooks the tapioca balls to the perfect texture. There are no powders, only fresh ingredients for the flavors."

Zhao moved to the U.S. with his family in 1997 and finished high school and college here. Lee grew up in a restaurant family; his parents owned Teriyaki Wok in Fort Collins. The two combined their corporate business experience to pursue their new endeavor, and point to the solid backing behind Happy Lemon as the reason — along with the desire to fill a void in the Denver cheese tea scene — that they're bringing the Taiwanese drinks to town. "It's one of the few [bubble] tea companies traded in the Shanghai stock exchange," Zhao points out.

The future, apparently, is in cheese tea.

Mango Mango Dessert

1144 South Colorado Boulevard

Mango Mango was born in New York City's Chinatown in 2013, offering Hong Kong-style fruity dessert "soups," pastries, hot teas and frozen blended drinks. The first Denver outpost just opened at the beginning of 2020, and already the little shop has experienced long lines and sold-out nights, particularly during its grand-opening week. Fresh fruit, especially mango, tops the sweet, warm soups (think thin custard or warm smoothie), along with ingredients and flavors more commonly associated with savory dishes in Western cuisine: black sesame, black rice and sweet bean paste, for example.

Mochi balls, layered crepe cakes and sundaes are also available, but for an unusual drink experience, the slushes are the way to go. Most are standard combos of fruit (such as strawberry-mango), but the green tea slush with red beans and black rice (both sweetened) makes for an interesting amalgam of contrasting flavors and textures. 

Zero Degrees

1390 South Colorado Boulevard, 720-389-8348
13600 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 720-859-7791

Zero Degrees, founded by Ken Le, Trinity Le and San Huynh in 2013 in Orange County, calls itself an "Asian-Hispanic fusion chain." That mashup is most evident in the colorful drinks that combine the best elements of a chelada with fruit bases instead of the more typical Clamato. But the addition of chamoy and Tajín seasoning pushes a barrage of sour, salty, spicy and sweet to the forefront. Zero Degrees serves its mangonadas in tall Mason jars, or you can get two flavors at once in a split cup with a divider down the middle.

Eye-catching camo milkshakes combine disparate ingredients like Oreo cookies and matcha green tea with a swirl of "camo brulee," giving the mixtures a distinct camouflage pattern (more like those old NFL camo pants than actual military uniforms) as well as a sugary boost. All the better for washing down street food from Zero Degrees' savory menu: elotes coated in Flamin' Hot Cheeto dust, carne asada fries or salt-and-pepper popcorn chicken.

Now, drink up and say cheese!
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation

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