In the heart of Isla Vista, a small college town in Santa Barbara, lives more than 15,000 people and five boba shops. Boba tea, also known as pearl milk tea, “珍珠奶茶,” and bubble tea, is a sweet and refreshing beverage from the Taiwan region. Often considered a staple among college students and locals alike, boba has become an essential part of the food culture in Isla Vista — and with so many options to choose from, I decided to journey on this flavorful adventure to review five popular boba establishments in town.
#1 — Hochaya
Hochaya, a charming boba tea shop in Goleta, pleasantly surprised me with its Boba Milk Tea with Matcha Pudding. The boba was perfectly chewy, and the matcha pudding was flavorful without being overly sweet. It added just the right amount of sugar to counter the bitterness of the tea, striking a well-rounded balance.
The drink was a harmonious blend of textures and flavors, with the matcha pudding adding a unique twist to the traditional boba milk tea. However, perfection comes at a price. At over $7, Hochaya’s delicious concoction might require you to dig a bit deeper into your pockets. For those willing to splurge, though, the experience is certainly worth it.
#2 — Kaiju (Phresh Teas)
Kaiju, a Japanese restaurant on Embarcadero Del Mar, is a trendy spot frequented by boba enthusiasts. With its Instagram-worthy store decorations, brightly lit interiors, and a mix of comfortable seating, it’s a perfect place to grab a bite, catch up with friends, or study over a delicious boba drink.
Upon taking the first sip, however, it was evident the boba could have been cooked a little longer. The pearls were just a bit too firm in the core, making it difficult to appreciate the chewiness.
Some of the pearls also clumped together, which inconveniently blocked the straw. Despite these setbacks, the tea’s flavor was well-balanced, with a rich and creamy texture of the non-dairy creamer that left me wanting more.
#3 — Mojo Asian Fusion Café
Feeling rather adventurous, I paid another visit to Mojo Asian Fusion Café, conveniently close to campus at 65 Seville and a perfect spot for a quick boba run in between classes. My whimsical mood led me to a delightful choice: a Strawberry Jasmine Green Milk Tea with agar boba (a choice due to a temporary shortage of the typical tapioca pearls).
The drink hit a comfortable sweet spot at 25 percent, which led me to ponder the authenticity of sweetness percentages. Does a 100 percent sweetness truly imply a drink four times as sweet? Or is it a mere placebo after all? Delving into the agar boba, I was pleasantly surprised by its unique texture. It was chewy but without the stickiness of typical tapioca pearls. The unconventional pairing of agar boba with the strawberry-jasmine blend turned out to be a tasty choice, reminding me once again of the joy of experimenting with flavors in the world of boba!
#4 — Hana Kitchen
Nestled in a cozy corner on Pardall Road, Hana Kitchen is a hidden gem known for its Asian fusion cuisine, and so I wanted to see if their boba matched their food reputation. I decided to try their green milk tea, a popular choice but sometimes hard to find
The first thing I noticed was the distinct lack of milky flavor in the tea. The tea, itself, was also not strong,. However, pearls were cooked to perfection, achieving a balance between softness and chewiness that left my teeth singing. The only drawback was that the boba was a little too big for the straw, so it made it difficult to drink. This required some extra effort to enjoy the pearls, but it did not take away from their satisfying texture.
#5 — Naan Stop
Finally, I returned to the heart of Isla Vista to visit Naan Stop, which boasts of being the original boba shop in the area. I opted for a matcha-flavored milk tea.
The boba at Naan Stop was cooked to perfection, complementing the matcha milk tea beautifully. Despite ordering it at 25 percent sugar, the drink was still quite sweet. However, this didn’t overshadow the overall taste, which was indeed satisfying.
What sets Naan Stop apart is its affordability. With drinks usually priced under $5, it’s a favorite spot for budget-conscious college students. The combination of delicious boba, friendly prices, and its claim to originality make it a must-visit for any boba enthusiast.
BONUS — Sigma Eta Pi Fundraiser
On one occasion, I chanced upon Sigma Eta Pi, a Co-Ed Entrepreneurship Fraternity, holding a boba sale for their fundraiser. The concoction they presented was somewhat subpar and tasted somewhat like a strange blend of lemon tea and exceptionally diluted milk. However, the charm of the scenario lay not in the taste of the beverage, but rather in the spirit behind it. The fundraiser spirit aspect added a dash of sweetness. Despite the disappointing taste, it was an experience I wouldn’t trade, reminding me that boba is not just about the palate, but also about the people and the stories behind every cup.
After a flavorful journey through the Isla Vista area, I left with an enriched perspective on boba as a delightful beverage. If the price is no obstacle, Hochaya stands out as the top pick with its perfectly balanced Boba Milk Tea with Matcha Pudding. For a fruity escapade, Mojo’s Strawberry Jasmine Green Milk Tea with Agar Boba makes a refreshing change. I encourage all to explore beyond the standard offerings. Venture into their fruit teas and other innovative blends, as the world of boba has far more to offer than what meets the eye.