On any day of the week, you’ll find a line at CHICHA San Chen, and there’s a good reason. Their beverages won the International Trade Institute Award in 2021, a certification from the Michelin guide. Even on a chilly Tuesday afternoon, I'm waiting in line to get my boba.
Taking in the clean natural surroundings of the shop, I feel like I’ve been transported to a cute cafe back home in Asia. Their sleek golden machines are bustling away, pressing tea, and the bobaristas are calling out order numbers. It’s a small shop with plenty of light, wooden tables, and plants surrounding customers. Even though it’s busy, there’s still a sense of calm.
Jay Li, the owner of the Philadelphia branch, greets us with two of their most popular drinks—the bubble milk tea and honey osmanthus oolong tea—while he talks about the shop. He was initially attracted to the shop in Taiwan and decided to bring it over to Philadelphia. CHICHA San Chen in Taiwan is a beautiful concept store, and they’ve been dedicated to growing the best ingredients in Taiwan for their teas for the past 20 years. All the ingredients used in the Philadelphia store have been imported from Taiwan.
Li is also kind enough to show us the fresh tea leaves they use to make the teas. When ordering, you can choose from a selection of teas to customize your order. One can’t go wrong with the award winning green tea. The jasmine really stands out in this, and Li recommends it with cream. There’s also the osmanthus oolong tea, which is refreshing with sweet floral notes. The high mountain pouchong tea has a bit of a buttery taste to it, so it goes well with lemon juice. The classic black tea that is used to make the bubble milk tea is quite mellow and has a bit of natural sweetness to it that comes out in their boba.
For something slightly stronger, there is the dong ding oolong tea that has more charcoal undertones. Lastly, I must recommend my personal favorite, the cassia black tea, which has a bit more of a vanilla scent than the ordinary black tea.
After choosing the base for the tea, customers can choose flavors like lemon or honey and toppings like bubble or taro balls (for a limited time only!). Of course, if that’s too many decisions to make, there’s always one of their classic drinks. Every cup of tea is brewed individually once it's ordered. While this does come with a slightly longer waiting time, it's absolutely worth it—every cup is made with their time and love.
With the first sip of their classic bubble milk tea, I can immediately taste the difference. Instead of being oversaturated with that creamy, milky taste often found in boba, I can really taste the black tea, but it’s still just sweet enough. The boba is still fresh and warm at the bottom of my cup and it has that perfect "QQ" texture: a level of chewiness often desired in Asian food. CHICHA San Chen also allows you to adjust the sweetness and the level of ice in most of their drinks, making it ideal for even the most particular of customers.
We finish up our time at CHICHA San Chen with green tea and cream (as Li recommends) and bubbles. Despite being the strongest green tea I’ve had in boba before, the aftertaste is nice and light. Oddly, this green tea is not green at all. That’s because it's made from fresh green tea, which is naturally yellow and not matcha–green. If that’s not quite to your tastes, finish up with their classic lemon tart, which comes with high mountain pouchong tea, lemon juice, and mousse. It’s perfectly refreshing, hitting you with lemon and just the aftertaste of tea. It’s not too sugary or sour at all and makes for a great dessert drink.
CHICHA San Chen has a level of luxury not found in the average boba shop. The teas are the stand–out in all their beverages; not just heaps of sugar and milk.
As for what’s next for CHICHA San Chen in Philadelphia, Li says they plan on starting pickup services, so customers can order in advance and hopefully not have to wait in that impressive line. He also wants to sell gift sets like they do at the Taiwan store, with beautiful ceramic tea sets. In the future, he may completely orient himself toward tea by opening a store in Philadelphia where customers can participate in tea ceremonies, an incredible cultural experience that is an essential for all tea lovers.
CHICHA San Chen has already had a lot of global success, with stores all around Asia, the United States, and Canada—and it’s for good reason. For the boba enthusiast, the lines are absolutely worth it.
TL;DR: CHICHA San Chen is every tea lover's dream come true.
Location: 932 Race St.
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday and Sundays 12 p.m.–9:30 p.m; Friday and Saturday 12 p.m.–9 p.m.; Closed on Mondays