Bubble tea, which also goes by boba, tapioca pearl, tapioca ball tea, tea latte and bo ba nai cha, is a global fad that, thanks to our area's large Vietnamese population, is approaching cult status down here. Compared to other beverage trends, bubble tea is refreshing like a Frappuccino, sometimes made with blended fruit like a smoothie and available in myriad flavors and combinations like that ongoing martini craze. Only there's no comparison: bubble tea is 10 bazillion times more titillating than any of those beverages. Besides the sensual experience, bubble tea is fascinating because it journeyed from Taiwan to this country on a wave of underground hysteria rather than corporate marketing. While bubble tea franchises have evolved in some cities, bubble tea drinkers where bubble tea is scarce (i.e. most of America) are the most serious of chowhounds, scrounging high and low for unlikely purveyors of the drink, like Frosty's. Bubble tea becomes an obsession.
Suffice it to say that I'm obsessed. If you wonder whether this affliction will overtake you, too, ask yourself how much time you spend thinking about those Vietnamese desserts in the plastic cups layered with bean pastes, squishy gelatinous shapes and sweet coconut milk. If the answer registers anywhere in the positive minutes, you're sunk. Usually served cold, bubble tea at Frosty's is chilled with shaved sno-ball ice. The other constant ingredient at most shops is black pearl tapioca, which has that familiar squeaky, gelatinous texture. The pearls look like Coco Puffs before they're cooked; when prepared properly, they turn opaque black and swell to about twice the size of your average Mardi Gras bead. They bite like firm grapes or slippery gummy bears and are best when al dente at the very center. They rest like the roe from a very large fish at the bottom of every bubble tea cup, which at Frosty's have the volume of Big Gulps and straws with such girth they could be used in household plumbing. When you suck, the slimy pebbles shoot upwards through the straw with the sweet tea. You pause to swallow and to chew, the pearls emit a vague cotton candy essence and the beverage, really a meal, is a dentist's worst nightmare. The entire experience is very, well, oral.
Newcomers may need help choosing from Frosty's 80-plus bubble tea flavors, most of which are still scribbled on a piece of loose-leaf paper behind the register. First, know that not all flavors are tea-based. Some, like mango, are thick fruit purees; others, like vanilla latte, resemble milkshakes. On weekdays after school, watch the teenagers; bubble tea is like a fashion statement with the Pokemon-Hello Kitty crowd, which generally goes for vibrant, Day-Glo colors. Chunks of dyed taro root make a gorgeous, synthetic lilac-lavender blended drink. Tang-orange passion fruit puree looks like a cool science experiment with added bits of red and white fruit jellies.
The add-ins don't get any ink yet on Frosty's printed menu, but they can be key. Bubble tea is not rocket science. It's an obsession best fed with curiosity, so ask the woman making yours (she's also obsessed) for ideas. She'll insist upon adding jiggly lychee bits to your jasmine green tea; she'll throw a shot of sweet coconut juice into your green bean blend; if you're full, she'll direct you toward the milk tea, which tastes like a light version of condensed-milky Thai iced tea. And her favorite flavor is a big seller at both Frosty's and Tan Dinh in Gretna: avocado. Smooth and rich, leaving a slight tang at the back of your throat, it tastes exactly like it sounds. Try to buy one for a friend, however, and you'll find that most bubble tea first-timers prefer their guacamole with chips.
A few decent, made-to-order Vietnamese specialties creep in between the spaghetti and the spinach-artichoke dip at Frosty's. There's a vermicelli noodle salad and egg rolls shot through with glass noodles and wood-ear mushrooms. Pho ga is a standard, deep-bowl soup with sheets of chicken and a star anise-touched broth. Throughout the day you'll hear the spit and sputter of a frying egg, served with a fried pork chop that compensates for its inflexibility with the dark, salty flavors of an Asian marinade. Employees pass around slices of Bundt-molded cake, a Vietnamese specialty textured with a webby pattern from nearly pure egg.
You wouldn't have guessed at first glance of the place, but all of this is all the better bouncing down with bubble tea.