Los Angeles has a strong passion for milk tea studded with chewy pearls of boba. Anyone who bummed around the colorful teen-friendly shops that started popping up in the San Gabriel Valley in the late ’90s—a trend imported stateside from Taiwan—could attest to that. But in an age when dime-a-dozen tapioca ball slingers have appeared everywhere from Westside shopping plazas to Chinese takeout spots in the South Bay, how does one tea parlor stand out from the rest?
That’s the question Christopher Kwok aimed to answer when he opened Hey Hey in Echo Park in February. “I wanted to create a neighborhood living room based around tea culture,” says the 33-year-old former business consultant. “We’re taking very popular drinks that people congregate over, but we’re making them in an authentic way with a focus on presentation.”
Housed inside a loft-like brick warehouse, Hey Hey looks more like a chic cocktail spot than a boba joint. Bespoke beverages such as the Union (half black tea, half iced coffee swirled with homemade herbal mint jelly and sea salt cream) or the Jewel (iced green tea with strawberry, lychee, and ginger) are whipped up in tumblers behind the counter and served in monogrammed jars. Kwok prides himself on offering fresh-brewed teas and making the syrups, jellies, creams, and puddings used in Hey Hey’s drinks from scratch, a far cry from the powdered mixes and nondairy creamers common at many chains. “It’s about connecting with the person making your drink and seeing there’s craft and care behind what you’re drinking,” he says.
Hey Hey isn’t the only spot in town refining the boba experience. Acclaimed San Francisco-based outfit Boba Guys, founded by friends Andrew Chau and Bin Chen, debuted in Culver City’s Platform development in May with what the menu bills as “the highest-quality bubble milk tea in the world.” When the shop first opened, fans endured long waits to sample the signature multilayered strawberry matcha latte, a tricolor liquid parfait of powdered green tea, milk, and strawberry puree. Much like Hey Hey, Boba Guys emphasizes quality ingredients: imported loose tea, real fruit, organic Straus Family Creamery milk.
The growing craft tea (and boba) trend shows no signs of slowing. In San Gabriel, Elton Keung’s Labobatory stands out from a sea of competitors with milk tea flavors like horchata and Lebanese rose water. In Beverly Grove, Pearl’s Finest Teas and Alfred Tea Room offer Instagram-worthy sips, while chains like Kung Fu Tea (from New York) and Gong Cha (from Taiwan) have expanded into Koreatown. What they all have in common is that they’re elevating the mainstream connoisseurship of tea-based drinks. “We’re offering an alternative to existing café culture,” says Kwok. “It’s an entirely different lane from what’s out there.”
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