Build your own drink or opt for one of the handful of specialty drinks.
I've decided that the most interesting thing about bubble tea is its name.
Bubbles are good (until they burst, as we all now know). "Bubbly" is usually thought to be a pretty positive characteristic in a personality. "Bubbly" is also a nickname for Champagne, a drink so optimistic that we use it to toast the new year.
Bubble tea, however, is a mess. It has very little to do with bubbles and even less to do with tea. It is fun to photograph, I'll give it that. Beads or "pearls" of tapioca, some black, some brightly colored, are suspended in the variously-colored "tea," making for a less opaque smoothie, punctuated with polka-dots. The whole thing is sealed with a cellophane cover and sipped with a very wide straw to accommodate the beads of tapioca.
And now Madison once again has a dedicated, four-season bubble tea outlet: Bubble Island recently joined the other four food stands in the new University Square food court. Bubble Island comes to us from Ann Arbor, Michigan, the original apparently a cozy hangout that features board games and $2 bubble teas if you order before 1 p.m.; neither is available at the UW campus location.
Bubble Island builds its concoctions on eight or so different bases, then adds additional flavors (fruit, usually) and a choice of add-on. The most common bases are milk tea (black tea with milk), tiki (coffee with milk tea), turtle (green tea plus milk tea), Thai tea, green tea, hot chai, and calpico (described as a blend of yogurt and juice that is extremely sweet). The staff is ready and willing to pour samples of the various bases -- all of which are extremely sweet.
The add-ons are black or colored (orange-red, actually) pearls, lychee jellies or mango stars. While the colored tapioca pearls were described to me as being sweeter than the black, I couldn't tell any difference and, oddly, in a drink apparently based on super sweetness, the bubbles are the one element that isn't sweet. They have no discernable taste at all. Sipping little chunks of tapioca through a straw turns some bubble tea initiates off; I don't mind the texture, but I wish they had some sort of flavor.
Build your own drink or opt for one of the handful of specialty drinks. Classic milk tea is the simplest: milk tea, sugar and colored bubbles. The Purple Haze, billed as Bubble Island's most popular drink, features taro cream, milk tea, and colored tapioca, and is extremely sweet, something like a glass of chocolate milk without much taste of chocolate. The Classic Thai Tea (black tea, spices, sugar, cream and colored tapioca) appealed to me as potentially having more actual tea flavor -- and it did, but was still less vivid than Thai iced teas from a Thai restaurant.
Other blends are the Green Turtle (honeydew cream with turtle tea and colored bubbles), Mooberry (strawberry cream with milk tea and colored bubbles) and -- well, you get the idea. Other drinks have even less to do with the teas and are built solely on fruit drink, cream and add-ons, which move beyond the tapioca pearls to the decidedly nouveau crushed Oreo. Drinks come in medium and large and run from $3-$4.60, in line with specialty coffee drinks and smoothies, which is essentially what they are.
A historical note: University Square Food Court's Bubble Island is not the first place in Madison to serve bubble tea. It's not even the first place in University Square to serve bubble tea. A dedicated bubble tea storefront, Pochi Tea, used to operate on the University Avenue side of the old mall; that spot eventually morphed into Rising Sons Deli.
The first reference to bubble tea being served in Madison that I can find is in a November 2001 Isthmus review of Wah-Kee Noodle by Tenaya Darlington ("Then our bubble teas arrived, proving to be the most curious mocktails we'd ever slippered down"). Wah-Kee has ceased to serve the drink. Samara Kalk Derby later assayed the aforementioned Pochi Tea in University Square for "Rhythm." And bubble tea has been available in the meantime at a food cart on the Library Mall and more recently from Wei's Food/Hibachi cart, stationed at the corner of Main and Pinckney in the warmer months.