Tea for Chew

Tea for Chew

O utside, ViVi Bubble Tea is bubblegum pink. Inside, the colors keep popping: stripes of pink, white and yellow march along the counter and up the walls. Recessed lighting morphs from blue to green to purple. Fat plastic straws in every shade of the rainbow are crammed into metal cups. You’ll need these oversized straws for the bubbles.

If you’ve never tried bubble tea—served by ViVi since 2007, its sign announces—you may not know that the bubbles aren’t really bubbles. The most iconic are brown, chewy, slightly sweet balls of tapioca, and, if you order them, you’ll be treated to a big scoop in the bottom of your clear plastic cup. As you sip your tea—hot or cold, with milk or without, black or green, fruity or floaty—you’ll slurp up bubbles like little surprises that offer a chewy counterpoint to the liquid. You never know how many you’ll get in a mouthful.

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I had only tried bubble tea once before—a sweet, hot cup of milk tea on a cold autumn day—so I was admittedly overwhelmed by ViVi’s menu. There are 66 different drinks listed, and that’s before you start playing with the sugar level (regular, 70%, 50%, 30% or no sugar), the ice level (extra, regular, less or no ice) and the optional add-ins for 50-75¢, which include not only tapioca balls but also pudding, aloe, red bean, basil seed and three kinds of jelly—regular, herb and ice—as well as “popping” bubbles filled with lychee, mango or strawberry syrup. With so many choices, I had to ask the server for help.

My first tasting was a classic ViVi Bubble Milk Tea ($3.50 for 16 ounces) made with Earl Grey tea, milk powder, sugar and tapioca bubbles. The sum was less sweet than I’d expected. The distinctive, assertive Earl Grey flavor was mellowed by the milk, perhaps more than some Earl Grey fans might like, but I found the ratio pleasing. The bubbles added more texture than flavor, but the shift between sipping and chomping had its own appeal. Suddenly, an ordinary cup of tea seemed a little bit—well, boring. According to my server, while Americans tend to drink the milk teas cold, in Hong Kong they’re typically served hot. In cold weather, that would still be my preference.

I moved on to a second choice, the Passion Fruit Flavored Tea (also $3.50 for 16 ounces). Quite sweet and just a tad sour, I found this one light and refreshing, a perfect drink to order during those hot summer days to come.

Next and last was a Strawberry Yakult Drink ($3.50 for 16 ounces). Yakult is a popular probiotic beverage invented in Japan. This one was too cloying for my taste, but the Yakult drinks come in other flavors as well—green tea, mango, passion fruit and grapefruit—and the sugar content could, of course, be adjusted. In fact, ordering a lower sugar percentage might be advisable no matter the drink, as the internet abounds with warnings about the high sugar content of bubble tea in general.

In order to learn more about some of the tea I hadn’t tasted, I struck up a conversation with two New Haven high school students who were sharing a table near a glass case with macarons and other sweets. (ViVi offers a variety of macaron flavors, baked in New York City and delivered here, but they looked better than they tasted.) Over the frequent interruption of the blender, the girls proved themselves bubble tea authorities. One drew distinctions between Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian varieties and described larger bubbles with a “harder consistency” on the outside, which she said were an acquired taste.

Her friend recommended that bubble tea newbies start with one of ViVi’s slushes ($5 to $5.50), which come in kumquat lemon, passion fruit, mango, strawberry, Yakult, lychee, taro, tiramisu and Japanese matcha (green tea powder) flavors. “It’s kind of hard to not like them,” she said, adding that fruit flavors are best for first-timers. “Start off slow,” she suggested, and be sure to add bubbles.

The first girl, who was nursing a Styrofoam cup of hot milk tea, said her favorite flavor is avocado, which isn’t on ViVi’s menu. But she thought ViVi was a good place for bubble tea anyway. “This is really good for starters because it does have more familiar flavors,” she said.

ViVi Bubble Tea isn’t unique to New Haven—its corporate website lists 22 locations in New York City and eight in other US cities—but in a sense it stands alone in the local market. While bubble tea can be found at several other places, including Basil on Howe Street, JoJo’s on Chapel and Mecha on Crown, only ViVi specializes.

ViVi Bubble Tea
940 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Daily 11:30am-11pm
(203) 745-4241
www.vivibubbletea.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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