Ever since the 1990s, bubble tea (or boba or pearl milk tea, depending on who you ask) has been growing in popularity in the United States.
Bubble tea in its very first iteration was “invented” in Taiwan in the 1980s, when a teahouse owner mixed small tapioca balls into tea. This doesn’t sound like a particularly crazy “invention,” but bubble tea has since taken Asia – and now the US – by storm.
What is bubble tea?
In its early form, bubble tea or boba was simply tea (usually served cold) with small chewy tapioca balls (pearls) mixed in. But boba has evolved since then to encompass a lot of different iterations.
For some people, “true” bubble tea is nothing more than iced tea with tapioca pearls. But in Taiwan, boba now usually involves milk and sugary syrups, too; some people say the “bubble” part of bubble tea actually comes from the small bubbles you get when you shake the milk and tea together.
You can also find bubble tea with fruit juices and fruit jellies mixed in, bubble tea topped with cheese foam (which kind of tastes like cheesecake), and even frozen slushie-like versions.
Bubble tea ingredients
People may argue over what a “traditional” bubble tea is these days, but basically it’s going to be a tea-based drink either with or without milk with some sort of pearls mixed in that you slurp through a big straw.
So when you go to order a bubble tea, here are the things you can expect to be able to add:
- Tea – The tea base for a bubble tea is traditionally made with black, green, or oolong tea – but you’ll often find fruit tea options as bases, too.
- Milk – Bubble milk tea can be made with regular milk, but condensed milk, half and half, or milk substitutes like almond or coconut are popular, too.
- Syrup/flavor – All sorts of fruit flavors are popular, and make most bubble tea extremely sweet. (Many shops will let you adjust the sweetness level of your tea, though!)
- Pearls/jellies – Tapioca pearls are the traditional add-in to bubble tea, and are chewy balls made from the starch of the cassava plant. Other popular options include fruit jellies and popping bubbles/boba, which are round balls filled with juice or syrup that pop in your mouth.
Bubble teas are usually served over ice (or sometimes mixed up in a blender like a slushie), and drunk through a fat straw so you can slurp up the pearls along with the tea. Most places will use a machine to seal the top of your cup, and then you poke your straw through like a juice box.
Where to find bubble tea in Cleveland
Bubble tea came to the US via Taiwan in the 1990s, first taking off in Los Angeles. Now, though, the fun drinks have truly spread everywhere – including to Ohio!
As I was going about my “research” for this post, I was surprised to learn just how many local Asian restaurants in the Cleveland area serve up a version of bubble tea! While bubble tea definitely originated in Taiwan, you’ll find local Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and other pan-Asian restaurants serving the drink, too.
Since there are so many versions of bubble tea out there, it’s hard to pinpoint the “best” bubble tea in Cleveland; it’s just too subjective!
My list is loosely ranked based on MY favorite Cleveland bubble teas (because yes, I’ve personally tried every spot on this list!), but I’ll include things I like/don’t like about each one so you can hopefully go out and form your own opinions.
Note: All the spots on my list have easy to-go ordering options if you JUST want to pick up a bubble tea. In fact, a couple of these spots specialize in boba!
1. Balance Pan-Asian Grille
515 Euclid Ave, Cleveland (Downtown)
If variety is what you’re after, then you can’t go wrong with Balance Pan-Asian Grille in downtown Cleveland. Along with fast-casual fusion food like build-your-own bowls and Asian tacos, Balance also has an extensive bubble tea menu.
Options here are made with fresh-brewed tea in all sorts of unique flavors, then hand-shaken and sealed like traditional bubble tea.
They have traditional and fruity teas, teas mixed with house-made syrups or lemonade, milk teas, frozen teas, and even boba made with cold brew coffee. The teas here are often brightly colored (and therefore endlessly Instagrammable), and they have additional options in-store (for example, I got a pretty layered butterfly pea flower tea that’s not on their online menu).
Their “bubble” selection leans more towards the popping fruit bubbles, plus the traditional tapioca bubbles if that’s more your jam. (I personally love their passion fruit popping bubbles.)
See their bubble tea menu here, and know that they have an app you can use to place orders!
Setup: This is a counter service spot, where you order your tea and/or food at the counter before you sit down (or you can order using their app). There is a fairly sizable indoor seating area.
Pricing: Two sizes of bubble tea are offered, with prices ranging from $4 to $6.50. One flavor of bubbles is included in each drink; additional flavors are 50 cents each.
Good to know: Most of their milk teas are made with organic milk, but they do offer milk alternatives. Also, you can order your bubble tea less sweet by requesting less flavoring/syrup.
2. Koko Bakery
3710 Payne Ave, Cleveland (AsiaTown)
A staple in AsiaTown, Koko Bakery is one of the go-to bakeries for Asian-style baked goods – and bubble tea in Cleveland!
Their bakery display case is always stocked with delicious filled buns, egg custard tarts, donuts, cakes, and more, and they also have an extensive bubble tea menu.
They offer more than 40 flavors of bubble tea, with most of them being served best as milk teas. They have classic flavors like taro, lychee, honeydew, and mango, and more unique flavors you won’t find everywhere like watermelon, red bean, avocado, plum, and more.
My go-to is the taro milk bubble tea with traditional tapioca pearls – and, in my opinion, Koko Bakery has the BEST tapioca pearls. They are the perfect soft-yet-chewy consistency. (And taro, in case you’re not familiar, is a root vegetable that makes for a slightly creamy, purple-hued bubble tea.)
Bubble teas here come automatically with the tapioca pearls, but you can swap them out for fruit jellies, grass jellies, or several flavors of popping bubbles. You can also top your bubble tea with “cheese milk foam,” which kind of tastes like foamy cheesecake.
Along with bubble teas, Koko Bakery also serves iced teas, smoothies, Hong Kong teas, fresh fruit teas, and more – so basically the options are endless!
Setup: Koko Bakery is set up like any other small bakery, with a self-serve display case and a counter to order/pay at. In normal times, there is some indoor seating, too, but right now it’s take-out only.
Pricing: Bubble teas come in two sizes and are either $3.95 or $4.95. Add-ons like fruit jellies, popping bubbles, etc. are 90 cents extra. Cheese milk tea drinks start at $5.95.
Good to know: Their milk teas are made-to-order with regular milk, but you can substitute soy or almond milk if you ask. These can also be ordered less-sweet, without ice, etc., though these options aren’t on their in-store menu.
3. Thai Thai
13415 Madison Ave, Lakewood
A Lakewood favorite, Thai Thai is known for its great Thai food and its inventive milk tea specials throughout the year.
Thai Thai has a selection of bubble milk teas on its menu all the time (with popular flavors like mango, taro, honeydew, strawberry, Thai tea, and more), but also often makes special tea flavors with fruit jellies, and over-the-top photo-ready drinks like mermaid bubble tea and unicorn bubble tea. (Follow them on Instagram to learn about drink specials.)
Their bubble teas are made with either a green tea or black tea base, and come standard with brown sugar tapioca pearls – but you can swap these out for rainbow fruit jellies if you want to. They also make all their milk teas with non-dairy creamer.
Setup: In “normal times,” Thai Thai is a sit-down restaurant, though you can always come in to just order a bubble tea. Right now, it’s operating as to-go only. No need to call ahead to order bubble tea, unless it’s one of their specials and they ask people to order in advance.
Pricing: Their bubble teas come in one size and are $5 each (though sometimes their specials are more).
Good to know: Their regular milk teas are served over ice cubes, but some of their specialty bubble teas (like the unicorn tea) are served blended with ice like a slushie. They are all very sweet, so be prepared for a sugar rush.
4. Ming’s Bubble Tea
1699 E Main St, Kent
Okay, so I know this one is a stretch since it’s located all the way in Kent and most definitely is not a “Cleveland” spot. However, it’s a shop dedicated solely to bubble tea, and it’s really good, so hopefully you’ll forgive me for including it anyway.
Located in a plaza not far from Kent State University, Ming’s is a cheery little shop serving up a ton of different bubble tea flavors. They do regular teas and milk teas, and have an extensive menu of bubbles, toppings, and other add-ons.
Ming’s offers many different types of tea bases to choose from, including fruit teas. All of their teas are brewed in-house daily using loose leaf tea, and you can definitely taste it!
You can also choose your sweetness level and amount of ice here, and I appreciated that the employee at the register warned me that the tea I was ordering tended to be very sweet, and asked if I wanted to tone it down at all.
Setup: The shop is long and narrow, and would usually have some tables set up inside. Right now, it’s to-go only.
Pricing: Teas here are pretty large in size, and start around $4.25 for regular milk or bubble teas. Toppings/pearls are an additional 50 cents.
Good to know: Ming’s milk teas are made with fresh milk, but they also offer non-dairy options like soy, coconut, and almond milk for a slight upcharge.
5. Sweetly Shoibhan Pastries & Bubble Tea
5524 Turney Rd, Garfield Heights
This little bakery in Garfield Heights is a spot you need to visit for several reasons, including their baked goods, bubble tea choices, and just general hospitality. You can tell this is a family-run business; I felt immediately welcomed as soon as I walked into their brightly-painted space.
On the bubble tea menu, you’ll find both regular and milk bubble teas, made with a traditional black or green tea base. Flavors include classics like honeydew, mango, strawberry, and taro, plus others like green apple, coconut, and blueberry. You have a choice of tapioca pearls, or a long list of popping fruit pearls.
One unique thing you can order here? A 16 oz cup filled with popping pearls for $2.50 – you know, in case you want to make your own bubble tea at home!
Bubble teas here are made to order and hand-shaken, and my tea with cherry and strawberry popping pearls was tasty!
Setup: This small bakery has a display case and counter where you order, and then several tables in a colorful dining room.
Pricing: Teas come in either 16 oz or 24 oz cups, and are either $3.50 or $6. Note that adding popping pearls is an additional 50 cents.
Good to know: Milk teas here can be made either with regular milk or almond milk.
6. Kung Fu Tea
11310-11314 Euclid Ave, Cleveland
If you’re looking to be overwhelmed by bubble tea choices, then Kung Fu Tea is the place for you. Kung Fu Tea in Cleveland is located in the same space as Kenko, a fast-casual Japanese spot in University Circle.
The bubble tea menu here is extensive, offering classic teas, punches (tea mixed with flavors and lemonade), milk teas, tea slushes, and milk cap teas. The pearl options include tapioca pearls, popping bubbles, red bean bubbles, and jellies.
There’s also the option to choose your sweetness level and the amount of ice you want in your drink.
I ordered a passion fruit green tea (off their punch menu) with popping bubbles and 50% sweetness, and it definitely was very tea-forward. You can tell they use fresh-brewed tea here! (I will admit, though, that their popping bubbles are not my favorite.)
If you’re looking for a particularly Instagram-friendly bubble tea, this probably isn’t the spot; their natural flavors mean most of their teas wind up looking like, well, iced tea! But whatever you order here will taste good.
Kung Fu also has a vegan section of its menu, where they make milk teas with lactose-free milk. You’ll find these in the “Milk Strike” section of the menu.
Setup: Kenko and Kung Fu Tea share a counter service space (but if you just want to order bubble tea, you can head straight to the register to order). There is indoor dining available during normal times.
Pricing: Prices vary based on what you order, but prices average around $4.50-$5.
Good to know: Kung Fu Tea is the only spot on this list that is actually an international chain.
7. Sugar Bowl
34912 Ridge Rd, Willoughby
Sugar Bowl is known for two things: bowls of pho, and bubble tea. And they offer lots of options when it comes to bubble tea!
Signs above the Sugar Bowl counter will walk you through placing your boba order; you start with choosing a tea base (they have green, black, and oolong here), then choosing a flavor and your sweetness level, and then deciding on your toppings/add-ins (they offer tapioca pearls, fruit jellies, and several flavors of popping bubbles).
Most of the bubble teas here are served as iced teas, though they do offer non-dairy creamer as an add-in to some of their flavors, too. You can also order some of their flavors in slushie form.
Bubble tea flavors here include lychee, strawberry, mango, passion fruit, rose, and lavender, among others.
Setup: This is a counter-service spot, with a small area set up for dine-in (though right now they are take-out-only).
Pricing: Their bubble teas and slushies here are large – 20 oz! Bubble tea prices start at $4.70 if you add everything in, and slushies are $4.45 if you add pearls.
Good to know: This spot doesn’t seal their bubble teas up using a machine; instead, they used domed cups (probably so they can use the same cups for regular and slushie teas).
8. Cravings Thai Cuisine
19701 Lake Rd, Rocky River
Speaking of slushie-style bubble teas… that’s what you’ll find at Cravings Thai in Rocky River. Some people love this style of bubble tea and others hate it… but I think it’s good to change things up sometimes.
Cravings is a Thai restaurant first, but their bubble tea list is pretty comprehensive. They have a dozen different flavors, including taro, mango, honeydew, watermelon, Thai tea, and more. All of their bubble teas are served with tapioca pearls.
The bonus of a slushie-style bubble tea is the fact that you don’t have to worry about the ice hindering your pearl slurping. The domed lids also mean you get a lot of boba for your money here!
Setup: Cravings is set up more like a traditional restaurant, complete with bar inside and patio outside. But they also have a drive through if you just want to pop by for a tea.
Pricing: Their bubble teas are all $4.50.
Good to know: They make their bubble teas with half and half, but you can request almond milk for a non-dairy version.
Other local places that serve bubble tea
These Cleveland restaurants also serve boba, but I either haven’t made it to them yet, or they don’t have easy to-go options since they are more sit-down restaurants.
- Dagu Rice Noodle (AsiaTown)
- Superior Pho (AsiaTown)
- Wonton Gourmet & BBQ (AsiaTown)
- Pho Thang Cafe (Downtown)
- Otani Noodle (Downtown and Uptown locations)
- Pho and Rice (Cleveland Heights)
- Sweet Mango (Strongsville and Berea)
- Restoration 44 Coffee Company (Mantua)
- HA!TEA Bubble Tea House (Kent)
As I have a chance to try these spots, I’ll update the list above!
Are you a fan of bubble tea? If so, have you tried any of these spots? Are there any others that I’ve missed?
Amanda was born and raised in northeast Ohio, and has always been a fangirl of her home state. Now, she’ sharing her love of the Cleveland area with the world, highlighting all the best things to do, see, and eat in the CLE. She’s been running Cleveland Traveler since January 2019.