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Shaken, not stirred: Flushing slurps up Taiwanese bubble tea drinks

Drinking balls of tapioca through a thick straw is not exactly everyone's cup of tea. But in Flushing, it's rapidly becoming so.

In the last few years, downtown Flushing has been transformed into a hotbed for bubble tea, a cold drink popular in Taiwan.

Many varieties of the tea contain tapioca balls, which are slurped up through a straw.

"It was very weird at first," said Danielle Vassil, an X-ray technician from Flushing, as she purchased bubble tea recently at Quickly at 41-40 Kissena Blvd. "But you get accustomed to the taste. Now I get cravings for it."

Throughout most of Queens, bubble tea is hard to find. But in downtown Flushing, six cafés dedicated to serving the drink have opened in the last several years, and many other establishments serve the drink, which ranges from $1.50 to $3 a cup.

On a recent afternoon on Main Street, more people appeared to be drinking the tea than soda.

Bubble tea was invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, after tapioca was introduced to the country.

With a large population of Taiwanese in Flushing, the drink has spread to Queens.

The tea is made in many different flavors. Most varieties are made with milk, milk powder or juice. But coffee, crushed ice, peanuts and honey are also among the ingredients.

The most popular flavor is Black Milk Tea with Tapioca, said Catherine Chen, an employee of Bubble Cafe at 133-60 41st Ave.

Many believe the tea gets its name from the balls of tapioca. But the drink is often served without the tapioca. Instead, the name comes from the bubbles produced when the tea is vigorously shaken before serving.

"It's like any mixed drink," said Miguel Cervantes, a 22-year-old Queens College student. "You go to one bar, they'll make a good martini, and another bar it's really bad. It's the same thing."

Workers at the bubble tea cafés zealously guard the recipe for the tapioca balls.

"It's a business secret," said Jacky Chang, an employee at Quickly. "Every store makes it different."

His co-worker, Nina Chow, added "tapioca is the most important thing in the drink."

Some cafés get their ingredients from Taiwan, while others import machines used to shake the tea.

Most customers at the bubble tea cafes are teenagers or 20-somethings. But some cafés also make the tea for older men and women, using less sugar than in the typical recipe.

The cafés themselves, some of which are open late at night, have also become somewhat trendy.

"You can sit here with your friends as long as you want with no interruptions," said Meili Su, 22 as she sipped on the tea at the Bubble Cafe. "They play music. You feel the atmosphere."

The cafés can become packed in the afternoons, and there is no sign the trend has slowed down. Chang said the owner of Quickly, a chain in Taiwan, is looking into opening a location in Elmhurst.

Cervantes said on days when he has a lot of studying to do, he hardly ever leaves the Bubble Cafe.

"Finals time, it's breakfast, lunch and dinner," he said.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300 Ext. 141.

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