I look for signs in life — the ones people who are religious, spiritual or simply superstitious see as clues or snippets of guidance. Did I do the right thing by accepting this job and moving to this new city? Will I be OK in this new place?
I knew the answer when I saw how many bubble tea options there were within walking distance of our newsroom. If I need to cry over a failed public records request, at least I could sip peach iced tea with passion fruit popping bubbles while I’m at it.
Originally from Taiwan, bubble teas are also popular throughout East and Southeast Asia, and more recently the United States. They have a wide variety, too — they can have a black, green or oolong tea base, and come with or without milk. What differentiates bubble tea is the boba, which is made of tapioca.
But what really sets them apart is the popping boba, also called bursting bubbles, a gel-like pearl that bursts juice or syrup. Other bubble tea has chewy tapioca balls.
Here’s the truth: not just any bubble tea will soothe my palette.
I’m a bubble tea snob — undeservingly so, I’ll add. I have no particular expertise to be able to dictate what generally makes a great bubble tea. But I think everyone deserves one food or drink that they like in a specific way, as long as it is within reason and without disrespecting food servers, baristas and the culture the item belongs to.
Nothing beats an iced green tea for me, preferably fruit-based. And this is where I get really snobby — it must have popping bubbles.
So, my dear reader. Here’s the result of my quest for the best bubble tea in East Baltimore, the part of the city I cover as a neighborhood reporter. I also threw in one location at the Inner Harbor that I frequent a lot because it is so close to work.
There are few things that can pick me up as quickly as bubble tea. That’s why I am glad to have a place to get bubble tea right downstairs from my office: iFusion. Ask any of my desk mates and they can tell you: Clara after an iFusion run is, well, a lot bubblier than the reporter that was staring at her blank document. It’s the perfect drink for when you need to step away from the computer and think about anything but the story you are working on.
At first, I thought the bubble tea here was too sweet, until my editor said I should try lowering the sugar level. I would recommend the peach or strawberry iced tea, both with about 25% sugar.
There’s just something inherently fun about sipping on fruit tea — the pause and the plopping of the bubbles,experiencing the juice coming out of them and always feeling surprised by it, even if I was expecting the burst.
My instinct is always to get the tea as least sweet as possible to make sure the bubbles really stand out, which means I tried to order a “no added sugar” lemon tea with strawberry popping bubbles the last time I stopped by iFusion. Thankfully, the barista was kind enough to advise it would be way too sour that way. I always appreciate the iFusion staff for saving me from myself — and also for not judging me the one time I was there three times in one week.
Simply Sip Tea
This place is for those dessert lovers.
I purposely delayed my trip to this spot. I was scared of the potential hold it would have on me. Simply Sip Tea may not have a lot of popping bubbles options, but it has what seems to be fresh, sweet fruits — mango, pineapple and strawberry among them. Coconut Mango Bliss and Supreme Fruit Tea are some of the most popular drinks, at least according to the DoorDash delivery app, and it’s easy to understand why. You can see the cut fruit and the fresh pulp as you sip.
It is very sweet for me, though, which means I save most of the drinks for when I’m craving ice cream. Otherwise, my go-to drink is the Sunset Lemon tea with mango pop.
(I had just gotten the postcard above, which inspired me into getting some bubble tea. The postcard is from Hello Herren.)
Chatime Federal Hill
This tea spot in Federal Hill, less than a block from Cross Street Market, smells like boba.
I had passion fruit green tea with mango pops, my go-to drink when the option is available. Chatime has a lot of toppings compared to other places I’ve gone, including green apple bursting bubbles, lychee coconut jelly, Oreo crumbs, red beans and mousse.
While I like the iFusion and Simply Sip Tea better, Chatime is a nice spot to hang out. The twinkly lights and an inherently indie pop-like playlist gave the perfect ambiance to stick around. I had just gotten a new set of watercolor pencils, so instead of going home like I had planned, I decided to take a moment and draw.
For what it’s worth: tea works just fine as water for coloring purposes.
I went to Mr. Bingsoo, a Korean shaved ice and tea shop in Fells Point, for, well, the bingsoo, a Korean shaved ice dessert. But I couldn’t resist getting a bubble tea as well.
This is by far my favorite place for tea out of this list. It has a lot of fruit juice options — I really want to try the grapefruit, lychee and green apple for next time — and poppers, including passion fruit and honey. I had the passion fruit green tea with mango bubbles and shared a bingsoo with immigration reporter Alissa Zhu.
We had planned to get The OG shaved ice for the sweet condensed milk, but the shop was out of the red beans. So, instead, we got The MangO’s, which has mango snow, mango pieces, mango syrup, mango sorbetto, mango crystal boba, mochi and marshmallow cream. And that, along with my passion fruit green tea with mango popping bubbles, might have been the highlight of my weekend. It was also definitely a mango overload, which is the best overload one can have.
Bambao is an Asian fusion restaurant in Harbor East, good for a quick bite if you are craving bao. The tea uses syrup that isn’t overwhelmingly sweet, and the menu has a wide variety of options for food.
Bambao also gets bonus points for its boozy tea options, including the Mango Tequila Green Tea, a tea that has bursting kiwi bobas and a lime twist, and Canton Sunrise, a mixed jasmine green tea with spiced rum, mango and passion fruit juices, strawberry bobas and a lime slice.
The bubble tea I had was good enough that it has encouraged me to be a bit more adventurous on my next visit. I’m particularly intrigued with the Canton Sunrise and the baos. I don’t know if there’s a sommelier equivalent for bubble tea, but if there is, I would like to be that. Maybe my next list will be about foods that pair well with passion fruit green tea and mango popping bubbles. We’ll see if there’s interest.
A bubbly ever after
Bambao marked the end of my quest in East Baltimore, partially because I hit the word limit, partially because there’s a finite number of bubble tea options in this region of the city. I’m always looking for tips and suggestions, so please email me for other spots elsewhere in Baltimore.
I might need a break from bubble teas for the first time in a while.
(Don’t worry, it won’t last too long. It never does.)