Fat Straws for Tapioca Balls: Tropioca Tea & Coffee Bar by Mayra Mojica

2808 Milam Street
Houston, TX 77006
(713) 737- 7111

April 2004–When I think of coffee shops, nothing exciting comes to mind. Most of the coffee shops I know are all the same except for some minor differences. But lately, the whole coffee shop scene has gotten a bit worn out and just plain boring. The only thing inside the coffee shops besides the drinks are tables and chairs, not to mention the overpriced board games and coffee mugs that they try to sell the customers. Many times I thought to myself, “Isn’t there a better alternative to this monotonous atmosphere?” Luckily, I found just the perfect place.

Beyond all the closed streets and dirt roads that have taken over downtown Houston , there sits a little coffee shop in the Midtown section of the city. A small, white lit sign reads “Tropioca” right on top of its location and again on the corner of the small plaza. Anyone trying to look for it would probably pass it by as the sign gets blurred out among the other bright signs from the businesses surrounding it. Even though its appearance might be reminiscent of a regular coffee shop, the experience is different from ordinary coffee shops- it is a bubble tea shop. I first found out about Tropioca from a friend who heard about it from someone else. It is located a couple of blocks outside of downtown on Milam Street, in a neighborhood known as Midtown, which is one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in Houston. While driving to Tropioca for the first time, I glanced around and I felt a little misplaced. I noticed that the neighborhood was surrounded by elegant apartments, a Randall’s store, a small bank, a luxury car dealer, and several Asian stores here and there. Although the neighborhood seemed to be an upscale and conservative living area, the ambiance at Tropioca was casual and inviting. Upon first entering Tropioca, the sudden smell of coffee, softened by the sweet smell of fruit blends, certainly made me feel like trying out their drinks. The appearance at Tropioca is very welcoming. The walls compliment one another with their warm earth tone colors. Many of the walls have a creamy light brown and a bold, yet soft blue that mirrors the color of the ocean. The colors remind me of a tropical island. The art work on the walls changes every couple of weeks and is created by local, talented artists. A clay, reddish-brown color accents the lighting area in the ceiling. Parts of the ceiling are higher and have a more contemporary feel to it. Its black color makes it hardly visible, giving the place a spacious feel. Track lighting illuminates the black chalkboard menu above the counter where the drinks are ordered and made. The seating area is lit up with small, spot lighting shining down on each table like a small ray of light. The lighting is not too bright but comfortable enough to study in. Upon first stepping into the shop there is a seating area with four, oversized, comfortable chairs around a coffee table perfect for a big group of people, giving the area a home-like feel. All of the other tables and chairs display their natural wood color creating an elegant touch that coincides with the rest of the earthy feel. The working area is open and customers can watch what happens behind the scenes while their drinks are being made.

In the background, one can hear the faint sound of music coming from small, round speakers. The different varieties of music contribute to the soothing atmosphere. The eclectic music played at Tropioca helps set a soothing tone. From jazz to oriental to soft guitar songs, it sure helps me relax after stressful day of school. Just upon entering the front door, there sits a small table with flyers and information about upcoming events- from music to art exhibitions. The staff at Tropioca makes sure that the customers are updated on local events to enrich their knowledge and help them appreciate the arts. Tropioca sells a variety of drinks, sweets, and food to satisfy those who are simply thirsty, to those who are starving. The many drinks include cold espresso, hot drinks, smoothies, bubble teas, and ice cream for those who want something cold. The fresh and sweet pastries, displayed in a glass display box on the front counter lure the customers who have a sweet tooth. The tidbits of sweets that Tropioca has are much like those that Starbuck’s sells to their customers, but Tropioca also offers soups and salads to satisfy any intense hunger. When I laid eyes on a chocolate cake that was on display, my mouth started watering and I had to try it. The cake was rich, creamy, moist and finger-licking good. I enjoyed every minute of that cake.

M ost importantly, the bubble teas are the main focus at Tropioca. They carry a wide variety of refreshing tropical fruit smoothies, iced coffee drinks, espressos, different flavored teas, hot fruit blend drinks, and flavorful coffee. My favorite drink during the springtime and summertime is the frozen cappuccino. It has a mildly sweet coffee taste and includes the famous chewy tapioca balls that gave Tropioca its clever name. Tapioca originated in Taiwan in the 1980’s and is derived from cassava-root starch, a plant; brown sugar and caramel are then added to the tapioca. Bubble tea consists of tapioca balls on the bottom of the plastic cup, a flavored tea of your choice, and is sometimes topped with whipped cream. My favorite part of the drink is the really fat straw that comes with the bubble tea to suck up the tapioca balls as I drink. The cup and the straws are clear and you always know when a tapioca ball is crawling up your straw.

I was a little bit nervous the first time I tried bubble tea because I did not know what tapioca was and I was afraid to try the mysterious little balls. I got over my fear and decided to dive in for a taste. The cranberry sized tapioca balls were almost tasteless, but very chewy like gummy bears. Tropioca is not the only coffee shop of its kind, but many people still come from all over Houston for their famous, deliciously made drinks with tapioca balls. It turns out that many people drive a good distance to reach Tropioca, and many of those customers come from the Sugarland area (according to a survey that Tropioca made about its customers). The most dedicated Tropioca fan drives all the way from Galveston four times a week to get something to drink! As small as the tapioca might seem, it hooks everyone that comes across it. Most of the Tropioca customers are in their late teens or ealry twenties, but people from other ages come in and out once in a while. The young customers come primarily from colleges and universities around town, especially from the University of Houston . They wear casual attire such as jeans, t-shirts, and tennis shoes. Most of the customers are Asian, due to the fact that bubble tea shops are found around Asian oriented neighborhoods, but other ethnicities show up regularly. It is popular with both genders and many people come in co-ed groups. During the daytime, many of the people at Tropioca study and they bring their laptops, textbooks, or notebooks and find a comfortable spot. The seating area in the back is hidden and less distracting for students who do not want to be bothered. Tropioca also offers the convenience of free wireless internet for those with laptops. The noise level at Tropioca varies depending on the time of day. Daytimes are more boisterous since more customers show up chit chatting and the blenders are continuously crushing through the ice to make the frozen drinks. The students who study in the front tables do not mind the noise that other customers bring in, and if they do, they wear earplugs. Some just go without earplugs or bring headphones to provide their own noise. The noise level at nighttime is more moderate since not many of the customers are nocturnal and the ones who are tend to stay there for longer periods. Occasional laughter and conversations can be heard from a distance. On several occasions, I have been to Tropioca to study for final exams. I went during the daytime, which was not the brightest idea. There were quite a number of people coming in and out of the coffee shop and, unfortunately, I had no earplugs with me. I heard people talking, blenders rumbling, and music coming from the speakers on the ceiling. I study best in quiet atmospheres and the environment was far from quiet. I learned my lesson and I decided not to go study there anymore- at least not during daytime. Tropioca is the first place I’ve been to that contains board games for customers who wish to play while enjoying their drinks. I asked a regular customer why he came to Tropioca and he said that he simply enjoys the drinks and socializing with friends in the course of the games. It was also his first time at a coffee place that supplied board games for the customers. Some of the classic games include: Scattergories, Scrabble, Uno, Jenga, and Poker. With the comforting and lenient atmosphere, it is easy to forget that I am in a coffee shop because I feel like I am at home. Every single time I go to Tropioca it is a pleasant experience. I go during the weekend nights when I am exhausted or bored, or when I just want to unwind and play board games with my friends. Fortunately, I do not have to drive such a long distance since Tropioca is only about ten minutes away from where I live. As soon as we get our drinks we find a table large enough to accommodate four of us and then we decide on what game to play. Our all time favorite game is Scattergories because of the challenge it gives us and on top of that, the added stress of time. Sometimes we come up with some really funny answers and ones that make no sense. Now, every time I go to Tropioca to play board games, I grab a bubble tea and chew away the tension of the game on the tapioca. My friends and I like to talk, joke around and make plans for the weekend. Our conversations can go almost anywhere. Time seems to fly by us when we are at Tropioca. Most of the new customers leave Tropioca with a positive reaction. One Friday evening two men in their late thirties or early forties came into Tropioca and ordered a fruit drink. One of the men got a kick out of the really thick straws given particularly for the drinks with tapioca in them. I could tell that it was his first time trying tapioca because he sucked up the tapioca balls slowly and carefully, which reminded me of my first time trying tapioca. When he was done chewing, he seemed to really enjoy the tapioca. After enjoying their drinks and talking for a while they left Tropioca and as they walked out, one of them turned around to get a last glance at the place and said to his friend, “I like this.” I am pretty sure that he will be coming back for more very soon. Tropioca Tea and Coffee Bar is the perfect place for having fun and meeting new people, even if it’s in the middle of the night. It is a great alternative to other coffee shops where the only choices you have are to sit and drink or to order and leave. Unlike Starbucks, Tropioca makes the customers feel at home without feeling pressured to leave as soon as they finish their drinks and is open during late hours on the weekend. Tropioca encourages the customers to make themselves comfortable for as long as they want and also provides board games, magazines, and information of upcoming events to stimulate the minds of the customers. The culturally rich neighborhood provides a different setting than other coffee shops and it brings the customers to a different and unique side of town that was once forgotten. Ultimately, Tropioca is a place where I can let myself go and enjoy a drink while I study, play board games, or talk and socialize. It’s a place where all worries disappear and the atmosphere engulfs me into a state of relaxation that makes me feel at home.

MAP:

LINKS:

Tropioca: Tea and Coffee Bar

Make Your Own Bubble Tea!

Bubble Tea History

Bubble Tea Craze

Houston Restaurants and Dining Guide

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