Totally Tapioca

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They're black, they're squishy and they're sucked up, chewed and swallowed - or, in some cases, used as ammunition. Round and slimy tapioca balls are the latest craze, and they can be found in the hugely popular Taiwanese tea drinks, sold at various Asian food restaurants in the Telegraph Avenue area.

But the Berkeley population seems to be split between those who adore and those who abhor the drink. Phrases used to describe these black, pearly balls range from "fun to chew" and "interesting," to "disgusting slimeballs."

Melissa Aconito, 18, and Leah Bowen, 15, were recently eating lunch at Mandarin House in the Durant food court, but only Bowen wanted to order a tapioca tea drink.

Aconito was turned off at first squish. "They scare me," she says. "One popped in my mouth and I thought I was gonna choke."

But Leah is a loyal customer to the Mandarin House and can't help but drink tapioca every time she visits the Telegraph Area. "We know this place is good," she says.

Other tapioca drink vendors include Fu Lin in the Durant tunnel, Daruma on Durant Avenue, and the new Quikeley on Bancroft Way.

Tapioca iced tea, also known as pearl milk tea, or bubble tea, is a marriage of the tapioca pearl with either green tea, black tea, coffee or various other artificial fruit flavors, such as taro, peach, almond, mango, papaya, strawberry, passionfruit, honeydew, green apple and lychee.

The drinks have been popular in Taiwan for more than a decade, where they started selling in the basements of department stores.

Soon, people fell in love with the colorful straws and drinks, and tapioca stores started popping up above ground in their own stores throughout Taiwan.

Five years later, tapioca vendors brought their product to Hong Kong, where it immediately became a hit. The West has only had this drink for the last few years, but already there is a loyal following.

Ena Tzeng, the owner of Quikeley, is a native of Taiwan but is happy to have brought her business overseas to both Berkeley and San Francisco.

"Americans are really nice people because they like to take a risk and try something new," she says.

Eighty percent of her clientele has either Taiwanese or Hong Kong background and only about 20 percent of customers are of other ethnic groups, Tzeng says. But she finds that increasingly more non-Asian and Japanese are loyal customers. "Asian people bring their friends," she says.

It seems that the method of drinking a tapioca varies as much as the flavors of the drink itself.

Tea lovers either chew the tapioca balls first, or drink the tea first, or drink the tea and chew the balls at once. "The key is integration," says Constant Gaw, 20, a UC Berkeley junior.

However, there is a general consensus between tapioca drinkers that the balls should be chewed, and not swallowed whole. "I think it's kind of strange if you just swallow them," says Eric Chau, an occasional tapioca drinker.

Although Chau only drinks them once a month, he uses the opportunity to peg his friends with tapioca ammunition. "I like to drink all the iced tea first and then save the balls for last and then use them for projectiles," he says. "(The straw is) just like a blowgun."

But while tapioca vendors may not have predicted this sort of reaction, they do believe that the tea's appeal lies in its surprises.

"It wasn't what I had expected," says Adam Oberman, 25, a visiting student, after his first try of the drink. "It's sweet and refreshing, but thick and filling."

But while the tapioca drinks may look more fun than coffee drinks, many people are still loyal to the bitter caffeine queen.

Brian McKenzie, 32, was found lounging on a chair in front of Wall Berlin on Durant Avenue, drinking a Thai iced tea. As a gourmet chef, he considers himself a connoisseur of all kinds of drinks, including coffee, chai, and even just plain espresso.

But he has never been inclined to try a tapioca drink, because of his disgust for the tapioca substance. "Tapioca's kind of gross," McKenzie says. "It's got the consistency of snot."

But with all this talk of "balls," could there even be sneaky sexual undertones to the tapioca drink? "It's chewing on the balls that I like," says a 30-something woman with a smirk.

Robert Huang, who has been working at the Mandarin House tapioca counter for three weeks, thinks that girls are turned on by the way that the drinks are made - in a vibrating drink mixer. "The girls are amused by it," he says suggestively. "Every time they come in and look at it, they smile."

Huang explains exactly how he makes the regular frothy tea tapioca drink. First, he adds two scoops of creamer into a steel drink container, followed by one scoop of a strong sugar mix and one scoop of a weaker sugar mix.

Then he adds ice before placing the steel container into the drink mixer, which is turned on for about five seconds to blend the ingredients. Meanwhile, he measures out one full scoop of the black tapioca balls into a plastic drink cup before adding the tea mixture.

Last but not least, he puts the top on the cup, complete with a colorful straw, which is wide enough to fit a tapioca ball.

When asked if different stores, such as Quikeley, make the drink differently, Huang is clueless. "What's Quikeley?" he asks.

Indeed, as far as competition is concerned, either between tapioca stores or between coffee and tapioca stores, there doesn't seem to be much at all.

"It's a totally different kind of drink," says Heather Oswald, who has been working at Wall Berlin for more than a year. The reason why Wall Berlin doesn't sell tapioca drinks, she says, is because it would be rude to sell the same thing as Daruma, the Japanese restaurant next door. "You don't want to take away each other's business."

But while Tzeng of Quikeley is more aware of the idea of competition, she doesn't think it's a bad thing. "It's good to have competition, because you can improve yourself."

She can't resist pointing out, however, that her product is the best. "But they don't do it as good as us," she adds.


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