In a city saturated with bubble tea shops, how can a newcomer stand out? On a sunny Sunday afternoon, I recruited two 20-something bubble tea aficionados, my daughter Talia and our friend Hannah, and went to find out.

Get some work done at CoCo Fresh’s communal table (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)

Our destination was the recently opened Richmond branch of CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice (140 – 8100 No. 2 Road), a Taiwan-based bubble tea company. With more than 2,000 locations worldwide, CoCo Fresh is reportedly the world’s largest bubble tea chain. The company’s website claims that they sell 100 bubble tea drinks every second.

In the Blundell Centre complex at 8100 No 2 Road, Richmond’s CoCo Fresh is a cheerful space, with white tables, yellow and lime green chairs, and a larger-than-life inflatable character welcoming guests at the front door. Post-it notes, where customers have left drawings and sketches, cover a section of the counter, and the communal table at the back of the café would make a nice work spot or meet-up location. There’s free Wi-Fi throughout the shop.

The CoCo Fresh menu includes all the bubble tea standards, from milk teas to fruit slushes, but we were scouting the lengthy list of selections, scrolling across an electronic display above the counter, for options that you don’t find in every local boba shop.

Salty Cream Tea

Roasted milk tea and salty cream tea, both with pearl (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)

I’ve seen “salty cream” tea on bubble tea shop menus before, but since it’s not particularly common, I wanted to try the CoCo Fresh version. My “Salty Cream Black Tea” with pearls looked particularly pretty, with a thick layer of frothy white cream at the top of my cup and dark pearls lining the bottom.

The cream by itself tastes almost like salted caramel, a mix of sweet and salty. Blending it into the regular black tea, though, diffuses the flavor, making it more like a standard milk tea with a bit of a salty bite. Still, we’d give it a thumbs up.

Let’s Roast That One

Attracted by a sign on the counter promoting a special “roasted” tea feature, Hannah opted for “roasted milk tea with pearls.” In appearance, it resembled a regular black milk tea, but the flavor was much richer, with a more pronounced tea flavor. Of the drinks we sampled, this one was the all-around favorite.

Two Ladies or Three Guys?

Poster advertising the signature “Two Ladies” drink (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)

Two of the CoCo Fresh signature drinks – dubbed the “Two Ladies” and “Three Guys” – come with “pudding.” The Two Ladies is black tea with tapioca pearls and pudding, while the Three Guys includes pearls, pudding, and grass jelly.

We’d all seen pudding at bubble tea shops before, too, but none of us had tried it. When I asked the cashier to tell me about the pudding, she reached for a serving spoon and scooped up a creamy yellow square.

“What’s it made of?” I asked. “Tofu?” It looked like a quivering chunk of golden bean curd.

The cashier shook her head. “Like caramel,” she said.

“You mean a custard?” I asked, and she nodded.

Talia offered to take one for the team and ordered her drink with pearls and pudding. Rather than standard black tea, she opted for matcha milk tea.

Matcha milk tea with pudding and pearls (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)

Her drink was well-balanced, the sweet, eggy pudding complementing the stronger matcha flavor. The color was a little lurid, with the green tea, yellow pudding, and black pearls, but the flavor was very nice.

The Cult of Yakult

Mango yakult with pearls (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)

I returned to CoCo Fresh to try another drink that was new to me: Yakult. CoCo Fresh makes several beverages containing this sweet probiotic yogurt drink, including green tea yakult, lemon yakult, and mango yakult.

After I ordered the mango version, the counter person opened two tiny bottles of yakult and mixed them into a mango liquid. He shook it up, added the pearls that I’d requested, and sealed the top.

I found it to be a very sweet mango drink, a little creamier than straight mango juice but with little of the fermented yogurt taste I’d hoped for. A pleasant enough drink but nothing I’d rush back for.

The CoCo Fresh Verdict

Overall, my bubble tea tasters gave CoCo Fresh high marks, particularly for the roasted milk tea and for the tapioca pearls, which tasted especially chewy and freshly prepared. We all liked that staff automatically ask if you’d like to customize the sweetness of most drinks; you can specify 30, 50, or 70 percent sugar, and you can also tailor the ice levels to your liking (less, regular, more).

Richmond’s CoCo Fresh recently earned the Diners’ Choice nod for “Best New Restaurant” in the 2017 Chinese Restaurant Awards. For a bubble tea shop to take that honor? Well, they must be doing something just a little bit different.