Review: Six Boba Spots in Chicago
Author: Andy Huff
I got extremely spoiled on boba this summer in Chengdu. The block I lived on had six different boba places, each with their own unique specialty. When I came back to Chicago, I missed the quality of boba, of course, but I also missed being able to walk up to a tea shop knowing exactly what to order. Since there are more places in the city than I can afford to try, I unfortunately can’t review every potential tea bar. That said, I have been to what seem to be the most popular places for UChicago students and am ready to give you the rundown on what to order at each one to get the best experience every time.
The Spot: Located within the building of Campus North, Te’Amo is right on campus, and almost always filled with UChicago students drinking tea and diligently studying.
The Good: Te’Amo does great with its subtle flavors. The signature rose tea is a favorite as it smoothly joins the flavors of rose and black tea to where they become indistinguishable. The boba are nice and chewy, and the “moustache” toppings, which are a salty milk foam somewhat reminiscent of cheesecake, are a fun, creamy texture.
The Bad: Te’Amo fails to deliver on teas that are supposed to have bold flavors. The Hong Kong milk tea and matcha, for example, both come out watery and unsatisfying, and every drink seems to use sugar above all else to drive the flavor. The fruit smoothies are made from factory puree instead of fresh fruit, which results in a simplicity of flavor and texture that just can’t compete with real fruit. The greatest problem with Te’Amo, however, is the high prices. The portions are small, and the drinks often run up to $6-8 after adding boba. For that price, I would want every drink to be the best boba I’ve ever had, but the fact is, Te’Amo is just okay.
Why to go: The best reasons to go to Te’Amo are if you need to have boba right now or you are particularly craving the rose flavor. You’re paying for convenience, but sometimes, it’s 11PM and you need your fix. It happens to the best of us, and I for one am not judging if this is your solution.
Kung Fu Tea
The Spot: Just northwest of the Chinatown L stop, Kung Fu Tea is a spacious, second-floor shop that takes cash only. There are board games and large booths, making it a good place to go with a group.
The Good: Kung Fu Tea has its recipes down to a science and is probably the most consistent boba shops I’ve been to in Chicago. It is the only place on this list where my boba has been properly cooked every single time. The teas are never noticeably too strong or too weak, and everything I have ordered is significantly above average for Chicago boba.
The Bad: Kung Fu lacks a standout drink. While everything is good, nothing rises above that to become great. The teas all have rich, satisfying bodies, but none of them have nuanced flavors that you might get from top notch teas, and the fruit drinks are generally not made with real fruit.
Why to go: Kung Fu Tea is the perfect place to go with a group. Because every drink is good, everybody will leave satisfied. You can order anything on the menu and expect decent quality. It has my favorite seating area of any Chicago boba shop and is a good place to sit and relax.
The Spots: For the life of me, I cannot remember which one of these spots is which without looking them up. Chatime lies on the north side of Archer by the red line station, and TBaar is on Wentworth in the older section of Chinatown.
The Good: Chatime is across the street from Chiu Quon Bakery. That bakery has decadent mooncakes and their Macanese style egg tarts are always creamy and delicious. If you get to the bakery early, the sesame balls are a must order.
The Bad: Both of these stores have the same problems. The teas are allowed to steep until they become bitter, which is most noticeable in a green tea that has a harsh flavor that reminds me of acetone. They also both tend to undercook their boba, leaving them hard and difficult to chew. The fruit flavors don’t appear to use real fruit, and don’t hold up to the fruit drinks at other Chinatown shops.
Why to go: Go somewhere else instead.
The Spot: Joy Yee is a huge storefront in the center of Chinatown Square Plaza. Being the only boba shop in Chinatown actually based in Chicago helps its immense popularity.
The Good: The fruit drinks are made in front of you and you can see the fresh fruit go into a blender. The usage of real fruit really makes a difference, as they offer a bright and layered flavors that factory-produced fruit flavoring can’t replicate. My go-to order is the mango and passionfruit smoothie with lychee jelly. Get a slushy with whatever fruit you like best for the perfect summer drink.
The Bad: Its legion of loyalists won’t be happy with me for this, but both of the worst boba experiences I have ever had were with the milk tea at Joy Yee. The boba both times were practically raw, and the teas were first oversteeped and then diluted, giving me a tea that was somehow bitter and bland at the same time. The cost is also very high, coming in at around $7 a drink.
Why to go: Go for a fruit drink. They use real fruit for every fruit flavor they have, and offer a large selection. It may be the only boba place in Chicago where you can get fresh fruits like durian, passionfruit, or mango blended for you.
Saint’s Alp Teahouse
The Spot: St. Alp is located in Chinatown Square Plaza near Lao Sze Chuan. St. Alp is confusingly named, and the foot-based logo only adds to the confusion. That said, the inside space is nice and cosy with a large menu of tea drinks.
The Good: The almond black tea is--quite simply--my favorite milk tea in Chicago. The tea has a robust flavor that is mellowed by the milk and the almond. It is sweet without being overpoweringly so. This is, for me head and shoulders the best milk tea in the city, even above Te’Amo’s rose specialty. The taro green tea is also very good, playing the earthy flavor of the taro off of the floral flavor of jasmine green tea. With large drinks coming in under $5, it is the most affordable boba place in Chicago.
The Bad: The boba is never cooked well to the point that I would recommend not even ordering it. For a boba place to not be able to cook boba is a pretty significant flaw.
Why to go: Even without good boba, this is still my favorite location for milk tea in Chicago. The tea is well made, and has enough balance of flavor that the texture of the boba is not strictly needed. St. Alp is my favorite place on this list, and the one I visit most often by far.
Ultimately, the key to getting the most out of a Chicago boba experience is to know what you want. Rather than looking for any one place to fulfill every niche, you have to look for the right place for the specific experience you want. Be it fruit smoothies at Joy Yee or well-cooked boba at Kung Fu, knowing exactly what you want and where to get it can be the difference between leaving disappointed and getting the boba experience you are looking for.