Sweet, creamy boba tea might be the Bay Area’s unofficial beverage of the summer, but sales tend to take a dip during the winter. What’s a boba shop to do, then, when it gets cold outside? In the case of San Jose’s Milk Tea Lab, the answer came in the form of a highly Instagrammable experience served hot — in other words, boba hot pot.
Of course, boba’s popularity among young Asian Americans has been well documented. And hot pot — the familiar kind, involving meat and vegetables cooked at the table in a pot of communal soup — is a beloved wintertime staple not just in overseas cities like Taipei, but also here in the US, from coast to coast. But boba and hot pot, as part of the same dish?
M.G. Ha, the co-owner of Milk Tea Lab’s San Jose location (1601 Branham Lane), believes the trend may have originated in Guangzhou, China, where boba and hot pot are sometimes combined in the way you might fear: A large pot, divided into two sections, is placed in the middle of a dinner table as though for a traditional hot pot meal. One side gets filled, as you would expect, with a savory soup base for cooking meat and veggies. But, in a shocking twist, the other is filled with boba milk tea, which diners dip their straws into to drink communally.
“I asked a lot of people once I found out about the idea, and they all said it’s just not right when you have the meat cooking right next to your milk tea,” Ha says. “I can’t accept it, and I’m from Hong Kong!”
In other cases, the entire hot pot consists of milk tea and boba toppings, served as a dessert:
Meanwhile, Xiang Hot Pot, a high-end Chinese chain with two locations in New York, takes “dessert hot pot” a step further by letting customers actually cook raw meat in the milk tea.
A graphic designer by trade, Ha says she would eat hot pot for dinner every night if she could. So after seeing boba hot pot TikTok videos trending in China, Japan, Malaysia, and even Canada, she decided to come up with her own version, combining the interactive nature of a hot pot meal with implements similar to the ones used in a Japanese tea ceremony.
Here’s how it works: For $15.99 (for up to three people), customers get their choice of three toppings (from house-made boba to egg custard to assorted fruit jellies) and a big, shabu-shabu-like cauldron of tea that’s warmed by a gel candle burning underneath. You add as much of the provided simple syrup and pre-warmed milk as you want, stir the mixture with a bamboo ladle, and then you’re ready to drink. Ha offers one important bit of advice: Put the toppings in your individual cup, not in the communal pot, so that everything doesn’t just melt — otherwise, “all you have is a sweet soup and all the texture from your toppings will be gone.” Six vials of house-made fruit syrups allow further customization.
The whole experience is enjoyably interactive, with a surprising amount of attention to detail. The quality of almost every ingredient on the tray exceeded expectations, including the house-made boba and the egg custard. The strawberry syrup, in particular, tasted surprisingly close to the actual fruit. The fun is in the variety of toppings and syrups that allows customers to make each cup of boba ladled out of the pot a little bit different.
There are several Milk Tea Lab locations throughout the Bay Area, but only Ha’s San Jose location offers the boba tea hot pot experience. And so far it’s been a big success: After introducing it in mid-December, Ha says her store’s stagnant winter sales jumped by 100 percent after just two weeks. For now — until the phenomenon truly goes viral in the US — Ha’s shop appears to be one of the only places in the Bay Area where you can try boba hot pot. (99% Tea House, in Fremont, also offers a version.) And you’ll need to jump on it soon: Because boba hot pot a seasonal item, it won’t be around when the chilly weather disappears.
Update February 6, 4:32 p.m.: The article was updated to account for the fact that at least one other Bay Area boba shop has a version of boba hot pot on the menu.