When we Midwesterners hear the word “tapioca,” chances are we’re thinking of one thing: a creamy white dessert with a texture reminiscent of tiny pearls or frog eggs, depending on your perspective.
Tapioca pudding is on the hit parade of dishes connoting a certain old-fashioned blandness. But in Taiwan, it’s an entirely different story. Fat, chewy balls of steroidally large pearl tapioca are the defining feature of “bubble tea,” a drink that has been refreshing its fans in more-populous American cities for years.
Madison tends to be slow on the uptake when it comes to food trends. Even things that seem like a natural fit, like the bacon-in-everything craze, hit our food scene at a lugubrious pace, so it’s unsurprising that we’re latecomers to bubble tea.
Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. The traditional variety starts with a regular cup of cold tea, lightly sweetened and often with added milk, and adds the aforementioned balls of tapioca, which sit in the bottom of the glass. It’s an unusual and fun-looking treat. Many bubble tea establishments have taken the playful aspect of the drink to extremes, offering frozen slushy- or smoothie-like variations in a dizzying array of fruit flavors both familiar (mango) and exotic (lychee and soursop), with different flavors and colors of chewy gummies in the bottom. Often, these versions eschew tea as an ingredient entirely.
For a time, sugary and fruity versions could be had at a downtown chain called Bubble Island, which recently closed.
But a new café on the east side called Jade Mountain Coffee & Tea is now offering a more traditional take on the drink — one that actually contains tea. Jade Mountain returns bubble tea to its roots, offering four flavors: black, green, oolong and red, all chilled. The drinks are served, as is de rigeur, in a clear cup or glass so that the dark-colored “bubbles” can be seen, and with a layer of foam on the top. A selection of wide-bore drinking straws in a variety of Easter-egg colors are available, and they serve a crucial function. Without the proper width of straw, it would be impossible to suck the bubbles out of the bottom.
There seems to be an art to drinking bubble tea. Each sip delivers a mouthful of both cold tea and gummy tapioca into your mouth, like a rapid-fire cannon. The little balls can be seen flying up the straw as you drink. Raising the straw from the bottom can slow or stop the rate of gummy-ball consumption. Optimally, you’ll finish both tea and tapioca simultaneously; a surfeit of tapioca balls marooned in the bottom of your empty glass means you need to fine-tune your technique.
Jade Mountain is located at Johnson and North streets. It’s easy to miss unless you’re watching for the signs, but it’s worth seeking out. Prices are affordable: $3 to $3.50 for bubble tea, with similar prices for lattes and cappuccinos (they serve locally roasted True coffee), as well as a Taiwanese iced latte, which is something like the bubble tea without the tapioca. Various pastries from Stella’s Bakery are available, as is a selection of elegantly plated desserts (from $2 to $2.75).
The café is named after the tallest mountain in Taiwan, and Taiwanese magazines are available for perusing. The staff is outgoing and friendly, and you can sit outside on Jade Mountain’s lovely, spacious patio. A trip to the cafe indulges both your inner child and your cross-cultural sophisticate with a single drink.