A group of twentysomething Asian women are playing a Chinese board game on a wooden coffee table. just a few feet away, five or six young Asian men are yakking away on cell phones as they tap their feet to the music pumping from speakers scattered throughout the room. Four televisions above the bar show a popular Chinese rock band in concert via satellite. You can follow along with the Cantonese subtitles that light up as they sing--MTV meets karaoke.
This scene could be found in any hip tea shop in Taiwan or Hong Kong these days, but it's happening most nights of the week-and especially on Friday and Saturday--on the first floor of Phoenix restaurant in Chinatown. And while the crowd on a recent Friday night was decidedly mixed-Asian and Anglo, young and old-every table had one thing in common: bubble tea.
Bubble tea-also known as black pearl tea, pearl milk tea, tapioca ball drink, and a multitude of other names---is an iced, flavored tea concoction usually served over tapioca pearls or coconut jellies and sipped through a half-inch-wide straw. Young adults in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China have been sipping these cool, fruity drinks for 20 years. But six years ago, bubble tea hit San Francisco and Toronto, as Asian expats longed for the flavors of home.
"In New York and California it's already very popular," says Eddy Cheung, who runs both Phoenix restaurant and Phoenix Lounge. "After the movies or before a show, the younger generation that's not drinking age still has someplace to hang around."
Cheung moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong in 1969, then to Toronto, then to Chicago in 1 994. He opened Phoenix just two years later and the restaurant quickly won critical acclaim for its dozens of daily dim sum items. But frequent trips back to Toronto, which has a large Asian population, revealed that tea shops were popping up in every mail and plaza in the city. Cheung realized Phoenix had a captive market on weekend mornings, when the wait for a table in the second-story restaurant sometimes stretched up to two hours. "We weren't using this space very well downstairs," he says. "it was a karaoke bar for a short time, but I always wanted to do the bubble tea." In July he converted the first-floor space into a tea shop/lounge with comfy armchairs and a long, curved bar. It's open until 2 AM on summer nights, and he plans to keep the late-night hours on weekends year-round.
The bubble teas make up a considerable portion of the lounge menu, but there are also milk shakes (yogurt powder, flavoring, ice, and milk) and slushes (ice pulverized with red bean and milk powders in a blender), which are served in giant fishbowl glasses that are more Polynesian kitsch than Asian cool. About a dozen glass jars of tea leaves sit along the back of the bar, just in case patrons want to sip a hot herbal tea while they order from a limited menu of finger foods typical of tea shop fare, like cuttlefish cakes, noodles, soups, and toast.
Manager Shirley Law is a Taiwanese native who runs the bar on Friday and Saturday nights. She's quick and agile, speaking rapidly as she mixes and shakes drinks. Out on the floor, Cheung's daughter, Carol, fields questions from patrons who have no idea how to navigate the multifaceted menu. When a bubble tea order comes in, Law starts by spooning two teaspoons of sugar into a silver cocktail shaker that's three-quarters full of ice. Then comes the flavoring. Cheung has imported about 20 flavored powders from Taiwan, as well as a dozen or so liquid extracts. The powders are used in slushes and bubble teas made with milk or nondairy creamer; liquid extracts are used in plain iced teas, as they won't cloud up the clear drinks. All smell remarkably similar to their farm-grown relatives. There are the ubiquitous coconut, papaya, watermelon, and green apple powders-which made me think of how cheated I was as a kid to be limited to orange Tangand the exotics like taro, litchi, and red bean (which smells like cocoa).
For my coconut black tea with milk, Law scoops an ounce or two of coconut powder into the shaker and adds a teaspoon of nondairy creamer and a little milk before filling the container with black tea. She covers it with the silver cap, then shakes it fiercely for about 15 seconds, until all of the ice is melted and the outside of the shaker is slightly frosted. She pops the cap off to reveal tiny bubbles that have formed on the strainer-hence the name and sets a tall pilsner glass on the bar. Before she pours, Law reaches behind the bar and removes one of several large plastic containers full of imported tapioca pearls, which are roughly the size of a fingernail and similar in texture to jelly beans, perhaps 'a bit firmer. There are six flavors available, and Law scoops a heaping teaspoon of black. honey-flavored pearls into the bottom of the glass. The bubble tea concoction is poured over the pearls until the glass is about three-quarters full; ice is added at the end. She pulls out the wide straw and jabs it into the drink.
"Here, you try it," she says. The glass is refreshingly cold, the tea is smooth, and there is a faint kiss of coconut on my tongue. I take another sip and manage to pull up a few of the tapioca pearls, which I chew happily as the beads dance in my mouth and dissolve. Instead of pearls you can opt for a small scoop of flavored jellies, tiny square gelatin pieces close in texture to gummy bears. Flavors range from pineapple and lemon to passion fruit and litchi. My companion orders a green bubble tea, with a shot of liquid green apple and a scoop of green apple jellies. A 12-ounce glass will set you back $2.95 with milk, $2.50 without. A large-about 18 ounces--costs a dollar more and jellies and pearls are 50 cents extra.
Taiwan thick toast ($2.50) is a popular snack in the tea shops of Taipei, and Phoenix has replicated it here with delicious results. Our waitress describes it as two thick slices of bread slathered with flavored pastes like peanut, coconut, green tea, or sesame. After the bread is covered with the paste, a little bit of butter is rubbed on top and both slices get a light coating of condensed milk before being browned in a toaster oven. Our black sesame toast has a faint hint of chocolate--both sweet and earthy-and a slight crunch. "if you go to Asia, you always have to have a snack to go with your tea," says Cheung, looking around the lounge, which has now completely filled up with teens and adults--music pumping, cocktail shakers rattling.
Phoenix Lounge is at 2131 S. Archer, 312-328-0848.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.