Bubble Tea Showdown: Looking for that good good pearl

Ye-Gon: Not many people around these neck of the woods might know what a bubble tea is. Imagine tea, but sweet, and with a butt ton of milk and often (not always) fruit or chocolate flavours, and with little soft, super chewy balls of tapioca. Is it a drink? Is it a dessert? Is it a snack? My friend, it is all of those, and none of those; but it’s addictive.

My sister can also attest to the fact that it forms the main staple of many a university students in Auckland, including herself, where you’ll find a Chatime or a Gong Cha at nearly every street corner in the CBD. So with an expert in tow, I set out to find the best bubble tea in Hamilton, comparing the concoctions of Snowtown, Mr Panda, and Mr D’s. We ordered the identical plain ol’ milk tea from each of the places, brought them home, and tried all three in complete awkward silence. So in no particular order, here’s what we found.

First up: Snowtown. The name’s a bit ironic; Hamilton is, except that one time in 2010 for three minutes, not a snow town. It’s a mostly rain town. Occasionally hail town. Definitely a fog town. What the snow might be referring to is the range of shaved ice/frozen milk snow they serve, which looks amazing, and I would have ordered one, had it not been a rather nippy day. (This is a popular Asian dessert. And you bet your bottom dollar we’ll be back to check it out in a couple of months.)

As soon as I grasp the plastic cup, I’m somewhat disappointed that the beverage is tepid at best. The pearls, with which they are rather generous, are perfectly chewy and bouncy with a nice sweetness. The drink itself is intensely milky, (in fact, too milky for my sister’s taste,) and the tea flavour is the strongest out of the three as well. The tea is pretty good, but it’s more bitter than fragrant, and I assume that in pursuit of adding as much milk as possible they overbrewed the tea somewhat to compensate. You get to choose how much sugar they should put in the drink. I asked for “the usual”, which was apparently 50% on their scale. At this level, it’s the least sweet of the three.

It feels like Mr Panda has been around for years, which probably has something to do with the way it pulled off an under-the-radar transition from Momotea. It recently shifted to a little hole in the wall on Vic, two shops down from Mexico, and the place was rather busy for 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. The interior banks in on the whole panda thing, with all the seating upholstered in black faux fur with white spots.

Their drink is served frosty cold, but served without ice – the platonic ideal. It’s almost the opposite of Snowtown’s when contrasting the two; sweeter, less milky, less tea-y. Whereas the previous offering is, first and foremost, tea, Mr Panda’s tea flavour is but only a subtle reminder that no, you’re not just drinking sweetened milk and water. Taking into account the fact that most people will be ordering these with melon, strawberry, chocolate, taro or some other flavour added, I’m inclined to cast my vote for the former. If the last place was a 50% on the sugar level, this is probably about an 75%, and it’s pretty much down to personal preference as to whether sweetness is a good thing or a bad thing. The pearls are mostly good, but the strangely grainy texture in the centre is a bit of a let-down.

And lastly, Mr D’s Dessert and Café. They’re on Barton, facing JB on the other side. They must have been there a year at least, maybe more. It’s normally about as crowded as church on a Tuesday, and inside is done up with a bunch of tiny figurines and stuffed animal knick-knacks that is immediately familiar to me personally as a quaint Asian cafe decor, but comes across as a bit tacky by New Zealand standards. Most of their menu seems to consist of some combination of durian, coconut, sago, and mango. It’s unfamiliar to me, but we’re definitely coming back to try durian for the first time. (That’s the second plug for a future post, if you’re keeping track.)

Bubble tea isn’t actually on the menu, but milk tea is, and when I ask the bloke at the counter if tapioca pearls are available, he says yes. It takes a bit longer than the other two places to arrive, and it’s served in a takeaway coffee mug, so we can’t see how many tapioca balls were put in the thing. What we can visually inspect is that the pale and translucent colour of the fluid, which doesn’t give us much confidence. Upon the first sip we discover that, and I do regret there isn’t a nice way to put this, it’s basically sugar water. Milk is a technicality, and tea is a distant memory. The pearls are weirdly irregular-shaped with some too big to fit up the straw, and many are hard and dry in the middle, like licorice sticks that were left out for two months.

So, yeah, turns out “no particular order” also happens to be the order of preference. It should be noted once again that the bubble tea at Mr D’s was technically off-menu, but the ruling stands; Snowtown wins the title of the best bubble tea in Hamilton. But if your tastebuds are less about Led Zep and more Taylor Swift, power to you – and to Mr Panda. And thus, the final question to be answered: how does it hold up against the best that Auckland has to offer?

Yerin: It doesn’t.




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