Although bubble tea is enjoyable during any season, there’s something about sipping on a cool milk tea during the spring that is intensely satisfying. With the weather turning warmer, I decided to try out five different bubble tea spots in and around the downtown Raleigh area in search of the best boba money could buy. For fairness’ sake, I ordered the same thing from every shop: a black milk tea with boba, the little tapioca pearls that may be in short supply. In case it wasn’t clear, I am by no means a bubble tea expert — just an avid enthusiast.
Milk Lab: 6148 Tryon Road, Cary
Milk Lab may be a 10-minute drive from campus, but the quality more than makes up for the distance. Granted, the closest drink they had to my “control” order was their brown sugar black milk tea — it was a little sweeter than your standard black milk tea, but the drink was intoxicatingly superb. The boba was light and sweet with just the right amount of chewiness, the drink itself looked straight out of a magazine and it was just sugary enough for non-tea drinkers like myself to enjoy. Pricewise, it was a little on the more expensive side for the medium drink I purchased. If you’re particularly passionate about milk tea, I’d recommend buying a large. Way more bang for your buck, and I imagine it would be difficult to pick a mediocre drink given the wide assortment of fan-favorites printed so aesthetically on the inside wall.
Bumble Tea: 3221 Avent Ferry Road, Raleigh
There’s no other word to describe it: Bumble Tea was adorable. The boba shop buzzed with the sounds of happy customers, as the employees handed out milk teas, fruit teas and the occasional, massive “Bumble Waffle.” I ordered a standard black milk tea with boba, and the drink was just the right amount of sugary and earthy at an affordable price point. The boba, however, left something to be desired — it was a tad smaller, and much softer and chewier than what I would have preferred, although the milk tea base more than made up for it. Although it’s less of a deal-breaker, I will note that the drink was already mixed when I received it — no intense straw-swirling required. Keeping up with the theme, the fish cakes and aforementioned waffle treats were Instagram-worthy and definitely scored some points for sheer aesthetic value alone.
Cha House Raleigh: 3001 Hillsborough Street #108, Raleigh
The location of the Hillsborough Street Cha House is hard to beat for most students who are living on or near campus. It’s only a seven-minute walk away from Talley Student Union, and the cafe is located right across the street from some popular student apartment complexes. Walking in, the vibes were immaculate: Purple flowers dotted the high ceilings, and it wasn’t hard to imagine spending a Friday afternoon there, sipping coffee and enjoying the view of Hillsborough Street. Bypassing the extremely interesting menu options (green scallion pancakes?!), I ordered my standard black milk tea and received it in under 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the drink wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. The milk tea was decent, but the boba looked sad and tiny as it sat at the bottom of a flimsy plastic cup. Walking back to my apartment, bubble tea in hand during a beautiful day was an enjoyable experience, but it would have been more noteworthy if the drink wasn’t just alright.
Boba Brew: 411 W. Morgan Street, Raleigh
Out of all the bubble tea shops I visited, Boba Brew was probably one of the least convenient. Located smack in the middle of Morgan Street Food Hall & Market, the place was absolutely packed on a Saturday night. The service, luckily, was incredibly speedy, and I ordered and received my drink in under five minutes despite the crowds. There was no specific atmosphere, to speak of — since Boba Brew is one of many vendors at the food hall, there’s no individual storefront to admire or any artsy, Instagram-worthy murals for customers to pose in front of with their friends. However, the black milk tea with boba was pretty good. Like Cha House, the boba was nothing special, but I would recommend the milk tea to anyone who likes a little more sweetness. It was more similar to drinking a milkshake than a tea, but I didn’t hate it one bit.
Budacai: 120 E. Morgan Street, Raleigh
Just down the street from Boba Brew was Budacai, a cute storefront right across from Raleigh Union Station. Although the atmosphere was a little more flat due to COVID-19, the building is equipped with a “selfie station” on the second floor — perfect for customers to enjoy while they wait for their bubble tea. However, what Budacai made up for in ambience, they lost in wait time. My friends and I arrived around 5:45 p.m., expecting to be out of there in 15 minutes, tops. There were a few more customers milling around, but we still waited for about a half hour before we received our drinks. To add insult to injury, I was left wanting more after trying out the black milk tea with boba. Slightly watery, fairly underwhelming, my favorite aspect of Budacai ended up being the selfie station upstairs, plastered with flowers and a neon sign.
To be fair, I’m sure any of the places I rated more poorly have some spectacular drinks that I’d be thrilled to try. However, the objectivity of my order placed Milk Lab squarely at the top of my list: From the sweet yet professional atmosphere to the deliciousness of my drink, I’d go again and again, stopping only for my wallet’s sake. For any bubble tea connoisseurs, forgive me if I bashed your favorite place. At the end of the day, I’m more than happy to enjoy a milk tea at any of these sweet cafes.