Bubble tea has been around Athens for nearly 10 years, much longer than you probably think, but the Instagram-friendly drink does seem to be in the middle of a… well, “bubble” is the best word for it. Downtown Athens is now home to three places that primarily focus on boba and associated teas, slushes and so on, in addition to a couple more that offer it, which feels like a lot. After drinking a whole bunch of the stuff, I’m still not sure that I can distinguish very well which places do it best, but I can at least lay out which place does what and why you should go to it rather than its competitors.
BUBBLE CAFE (247 E. Broad St., 706-355-3002): This cafe started out in a below-street-level space underneath Marvin’s Shoes, which was cozy but also full of the soundtrack of cobbling. When the downtown Taco Stand (RIP) closed, Bubble Cafe moved in. Although the entrance still brings a lot of sense memories of delicious quesadillas, the interior is cute now, with a lot of faux greenery and blond wood.
Tea-wise, there’s a fairly wide selection, with milk teas in 20-plus flavors (from jasmine to taro, tiramisu, coconut, winter melon and caramel), a comparable number of fruit teas (often made with fresh ingredients), slushes (blended with ice), snows (closer to a milkshake), smoothies and cloud creams (a thick whipped cream-like topping). You get your first topping for free, whether it’s regular boba, one of various jellies (rectangular prisms of chewy gummies in flavors from lychee to coffee), popping boba (spherified bubbles that explode under pressure from your tongue and/or teeth rather than something akin to pop rocks) or Oreos, and you can add more for a slight upcharge. There are many opportunities to customize your drink, like amount of sugar, amount of ice, type of milk and green tea versus black tea as a base. I tend to favor the fruit flavors with a green tea base, popping boba and less sugar than the norm, but you do you.
Bubble Cafe has a couple of distinguishing characteristics. First, it’s the only truly local business of the three, a one-off rather than a chain. Second, its prices are probably the best. If I were to make the order above, it would run me $4.10 for a small (as opposed to $4.75 at Taichi Bubble Tea and $5.80 at Ding Tea). Third, it continues to have a pretty nice food menu that is especially strong on snacks: steamed and fried dumplings, salt-and-pepper chicken nuggets, takoyaki, deep-fried donut-like sweet buns, fried tofu nuggets that can be tossed liberally with gochujang and quite a bit more. Looking for something heartier? There are rice bowls, poke bowls and some pretty tasty udon-based noodle soups, with greens, soy egg, scallions and a rich broth that hides chunks of beef, chicken or tofu.
TAICHI BUBBLE TEA (151 E. Broad St., 706-395-6483): It opened recently next to the downtown Target and, like Bubble Cafe, is more of a restaurant than just a fancy beverage emporium. It has a dozen or so other locations and also does ramen (not bad! Available with a tomatoey broth as well as shoyu, miso and tonkotsu, and with a particularly well-cooked boiled egg with a jammy yolk), poke bowls (not bad but not as good as Ahi’s, on the other side of downtown, and with fewer ingredients), sushi burritos (the only place I know of in Athens to offer these super-sized, seaweed-encased combos of sushi rice, veggies and proteins that can include raw fish) and rice boxes (cooked meats with sides that might include sliced tomatoes and jalapeños). Its bubble teas include something called a Zang Zang Special, that features brown sugar-infused boba and milk, and are available in slightly fewer flavors than the competition.
DING TEA (125 W. Washington St., 706-850-3737): Located in the Washington Street parking deck building, there are more than 1,000 locations around the world. As far as food goes, it’s limited to cute overpriced macarons, boba-topped coffee ice cream with caramel syrup (quite tasty but hardly a meal!) and, at least according to its website, Irvins Salted Egg Chips. It has by far the largest selection of different teas, and if you find its menu intimidating, there’s a small board with staff recommendations that may make decision making easier. The “rainbow slush,” a three-layer icy concoction of strawberry, mango and kiwi, is great to take a photo with but far too sweet for me to drink.
All three tea places have online ordering on their websites for pickup, keep fairly similar hours and offer hot drinks as well as cold ones. Taichi and Bubble Cafe both offer delivery. If you’re getting ramen from the former, orders close 30 minutes before the restaurant does.
WHAT’S UP: The downtown location of Condor Chocolates, on Washington Street next to the College Avenue parking deck, opened Nov. 24. After months of renovation, the Prince Avenue Agua Linda has reopened, now with a rooftop patio.
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