Boba Guys, the creation of San Franciscan entrepreneurs Andrew Chau and Bin Chen, first opened in 2011. After their favorite local boba shop closed, Chau and Chen strove to create the same high quality beverage, but elevated. Today, all the company locations prepare teas and boba in-house with premium ingredients and emphasize good professional ethics, including workers' rights for all those involved, from farmers to boba-ristas (is that a word? It should be a word).
Kung Fu Tea shares a similar origin story, except a coast away - in fact, right in our home city! In 2009, Taiwanese entrepreneur Allen Wang and friends felt dissatisfied with New York’s failed attempts at boba and developed their own eclectic menu of fruit, yogurt, slush, and milk teas. The founders argued that time and patience in perfecting tea blends could make anyone a Kung Fu Master.
The pursuit of high quali-tea and customer satisfaction drove both Boba Guys and Kung Fu Tea to the same micro-stretch of pavement on Waverly Place. But is one block big enough for both boba bosses?
To determine the superior milk tea mogul, I compared Kung Fu Tea and Boba Guys in varying factors:
- Price - how affordable is the tea and its toppings? Would there be a significant (approximate - this isn’t an econ class) opportunity cost of frequenting one location over another?
- Menu variety - how likely am I to find that very specific flavor with that very specific topping that fits my precise mood?
- Taste of tea - no cheap teas here. Go big or go home.
- Quality of boba - if milk tea is the tiara, boba is its precious jewel. Boba can easily make or break a drink.
- Entertainment element - what’s the vibe of the venue? What kind of social statement does your bubble tea make?
And so began my sugary, expensive, bubbly experiment. I chose to purchase four 24 oz (yay hydration!!) drinks - two black milk teas, for an unbiased litmus test, and a "signature" beverage of each chain. Although customers can adjust sugar levels, I selected the default sweetness for each drink. And, of course, I made sure to order boba every time (duh).
Litmus - Classic Milk Tea with boba and Straus Family Organic Milk, $6.17
I chose to kick things off with Boba Guys’ Classic Milk tea, which has a kick unlike any basic tea I’ve tried before. Unlike most sweetened teas, in which sugar simply dials down any bitterness, the sweetness of the sugar and the tartness of the black tea actually work in tandem with each other. I was shocked at how two opposing flavors could exist together simultaneously. It was like consuming the perfect metaphor for an effective Congress (oop-).
The tea’s sweetness hit in the initial taste, and the tartness set in as more of an aftertaste, but when you can’t stop sipping, the timing doesn’t matter as much. If anything, this Classic Milk Tea reminded me of an iced coffee with some complex flavor combinations, but the drink was truly incomparable.
Boba Guys has an impeccable reputation for its boba, and it shone through here. The first bite of each bubble released a slight burst of sweetness, and the starch kept their structural integrity, and the bubble substance itself didn’t disintegrate. Boba Guys clearly splurged on its tapioca starch to make this possible.
The only complaints I have about the Classic Milk Tea are that, like most full-sugar milk teas, it became a little cloying around ounce 16. The dairy of the Straus Milk, also sat slightly uncomfortably in my stomach. In the future, I’d reduce the sugar level down to 75 percent and sub the dairy milk out for the Oatly oat milk (!!) they offer.
Signature - Chocochata with boba, $7.08
WHOA THIS DRINK WAS CRAAAAZY. I actually bought two so that my friend could help me with the experiment, and we both googly-eyed upon the first sip. Boba Guys markets its “Chocochata” as a play on the traditional Mexican champurrado, a hot chocolate made with corn flour, milk, and spices.
The Chocochata tasted very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until hours later that I placed the nostalgic taste - my friend and I would describe it as a gourmet Yoo-hoo drink. The Chocochata was not as spiced or sugary as I expected it to be, but the tones still shone subtly. The boba, like in the litmus test, did not disappoint. The heavier sweetness of the bubbles actually complemented the lighter flavor of the tea itself.
My favorite aspect of the Chocochata was its delectable creaminess. It accentuated the minimal flavor perfectly, and, shockingly, didn’t kill my stomach! While a very satisfying drink, its chocolatey quality might remove it from the realm of tea for me. If Boba Guys poured Yoo-hoo into a cup, diluted it a tad, and added cinnamon, I wouldn’t have known the difference - which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not tea, ya feel?
Kung Fu Tea
Litmus - Kung Fu Milk Tea with bubbles, $5.17
I always knew there were slight differences between Kung Fu Tea and boba guys, but their teas are COMPLETELY different animals. So, let’s unpack location number two.
Maybe the bubbles were just warm from the pot, but my Kung Fu Milk tea was...slightly warm?? I know warm boba is its own thing, and maybe I was just stressed from the midterm I had immediately before, but there was definitely some heat in whatever I was drinking. Considering it was cold and rainy, the warmth was definitely appreciated and made the drink more interesting. I’m skeptical, though, of its warm weather appeal.
Outside of temperature, the tea had a subtle earthiness to it, which I’m attributing to its black tea basis. The added sugar cut the bitterness to a perfect degree, and I was left with a delicious, darkly toned drink. I could easily see myself at home, curled up in a blanket watching Netflix, sipping this liquid from a mug.
In my experience, Kung Fu Tea boba tends to range from chewy to 'on the brink of collapse.' In this litmus test, my batch was especially sugary, from the brown sugar boiling syrup. The bubbles were very chewy, almost to the point of rubbery, and there were a LOT of them. It’s as if the boba-rista read my mind, knew I’d be isolating individual bubbles from the straw as if I’d be grilling them in a job interview, and decided to plop another spoonful in to help me out.
This tea was very tasty, and very creamy, but also very heavy on the milkfat. My stomach definitely hit me over the head for this purchase.
Signature - Peach Oolong Tea with peach nata jelly and bubbles, $6.53
Just like my Boba Guys signature drink reminded me of Yoo-hoo, Kung Fu Tea’s Peach Oolong punch gave off serious Snapple vibes. This specific tea is marketed as having no added sugar, but that also reminded me of “unsweetened” Snapple when clearly there’s some fructose that isn’t being accounted for. Like the Chocochata, Kung Fu Tea could very well have some Snapple out in back for all its fruit punches.
Purchasing a fruity drink gave me an excuse to try out a fun tropical topping - peach nata jelly. Nata jelly, made in the Kung Fu Tea lab with coconut pulp and fruit flavoring (like pineapple, or, in this case, peach), added another chewy texture element to my tea. Don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure Kung Fu Tea put real peach in with the jelly, as well. The jelly was a tart contrast to the sweet tea, and, as such, was fruity and refreshing.
The bubbles I received with the Peach Oolong landed a bit closer to the 'brink of collapse' end. They were chewy at the core, but upon further teeth-mashing, they became a sticky, disintegrating mess in my mouth.Bad batch of boba aside, I enjoyed my light, fruity beverage, especially with more fun things to suck up my straw.
As noted next to each drink, Boba Guys beverages tended to consistently cost about a dollar more than Kung Fu Tea ones. If you’re like me, and only consume water, almond milk, and boba, that price difference can add up over time. However, Boba Guys is clearly using that margin towards ingredient quality, and it shows. While my Kung Fu Milk Tea was creamy, it was very dense, where Boba Guys’ Straus Milk kept things flavorful but very light. Even the tea itself reflected a difference in investment - Boba Guys’ tea was so flavorful that it withstood sugary assimilation and retained its unique kick outside of the syrup sweetness. Kung Fu Tea couldn’t even dream of that. Lastly, whatever Boba Guys is doing to brew its boba is working. The bubbles are always firm, never cloying, and never add strange temperature differences to drinks. Point to Boba Guys.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that Kung Fu Tea is just more...fun. Boba Guys, with its clean white walls and “trending hits” playlist on stereo, seems like it's trying to be as close to a chic iced coffee dispensary as possible. Which is fine, it just doesn’t catch the eye. Kung Fu Tea is bright, with posters overlapping each other everywhere. East Asian pop plays instead of English, small toys line the counter, and the staff even dressed the space up for Halloween. Kung Fu Tea presents itself as a party, which is why people hole up the tiny venue at all hours, when I’ve definitely seen Boba Guys empty at non-peak times. Also, Kung Fu Tea lets you pop the cap with the pokey straw. That’s arguably the best part of drinking boba, and Boba Guys does not deliver in that aspect.
Additionally, while both Boba Guys and Kung Fu Tea sell an assortment of drinks and toppings, Kung Fu Tea’s variety wins out. For Boba Guys’ milk teas, coffee mixes, and matcha specials, Kung Fu Tea offers these plus more: punches, slushes, and yogurt drinks, as well as more toppings, like several flavors of popping boba, jelly, and pudding. And, yeah, Boba Guys sells pastries, but Kung Fu Tea sells POCKY AND MOCHI - an automatic win.
So, without further ado, I will announce...my cop-out decision to select both venues as winners!!
If you’re in the mood for a classic creamy, milky bubble tea: go to Boba Guys. It’s worth the investment, and don’t forget the boba!
If you’re in the mood for an untraditional twist on boba while still retaining some authenticity: go to Kung Fu Tea. And make sure to pick up some Pocky on the way out!