“Let’s get bubble tea” is not exactly what you’d expect to hear from a group of college students on a Friday or Saturday night. But in Ithaca, students from both Cornell and Ithaca College flock to the Old Tea House to get their bubble tea fix. The shop, located at 111 Dryden Road in Collegetown, is so tiny you might bypass it if you were walking fast. But since John Chen ’98 and his brother Richard ’01 opened the business in 2001, it’s become a hub for students to pick up a sweet treat. Whenever I have a craving, I almost always have to wait in line.
When I got to IC in fall 2006, the upperclassmen encouraged me to check out the Old Tea House, ranking it alongside quintessential Ithaca eateries like Moosewood Restaurant and Collegetown Bagels. But in fact, bubble tea originated in Taiwan two decades ago—slowly making its way to Chinatowns across America and into the mainstream. Bubble tea gets its name from the froth at the top of the cup that forms from shaking the tea, but the black tapioca pearls settled at the bottom give the drink its distinctive look.
Now before you say, “yuck, tapioca” (as I did the first time I saw it), give it a try. The tapioca pearls are mildly sweet and have a chewy texture, sort of like gummy bears. Slurping them through a fat straw is half the fun; choosing a flavor is the other half. At the Old Tea House you can get almost any fruit flavor imaginable, with either small chunks of jelly or tapioca pearls, for $3.50. Two of my favorites are the grape green tea with grape jelly and the coconut green tea with milk and tapioca balls, but many people prefer the classic taro flavor. And now, Ithacans can have bubble tea delivered to their door. The Connection, a late-night favorite, has started selling the drinks for $5.99 plus delivery.