Boba Tour: Where Lakelanders Are Getting Their Fix
Written by Jenna MacFarlane
Photos by Jordan Randall
Boba is just one of tea’s many variations. Originating in Taiwan, the popular drink has spread across the globe and wound up in Lakeland. It consists of tea, milk, water, sugar—and the star of the show, tapioca pearls. Think soft, chewy, delightful balls of dough, often cooked in brown sugar, and perfect for sipping through a straw.
When you see the terms “boba tea” or “bubble tea,” on a shop menu, go in knowing you’ll pick your tea flavor, then pick your boba. (Many menus offer multiple flavors of boba. If you’re not sure, go with “traditional.” It’s the simplest and most popular. It doesn’t add too much zing, but a touch of sweetness to complement the flavor of the tea.)
Do yourself a favor and try out one of Lakeland’s boba shops this weekend—and another the next. You won’t regret it. Perusing a boba menu can be intimidating if you’ve never tried it before, so here is a good place to start with some recommendations from the shop owners themselves.
Hana Tea House
Hana Tea House is Lakeland’s newest boba shop. When its owners Scott and Hannah Chaunvann moved here from Cambodia in 2000, they knew they wanted to start a business. But they needed to wait for the right time—and last year, that time finally came. After lots of research and recipe development, they opened Hana Tea House in December 2022.
Hana Tea House’s boba is made fresh every morning. It’s warm, soft and tender, pairing perfectly with creamy milk tea. Sourcing high quality teas and sugar cane, the shop is proud to avoid using powders and processed ingredients. Its menu is impressive, too—you’ll find the usual suspects, like taro and matcha, but you’ll also find unique flavors like lychee, avocado and honeydew.
Hana’s interior is inspired by shops you might find in Asia—an intentional choice by Scott and Hannah. It’s bright, airy and engaging. There’s plenty of space to relax and enjoy a snack alongside your favorite drink, like the addictive “chicken pops,” pork buns, spring rolls, freshly baked pastries and more.
“We’re proud to be a family-owned business,” Scott says, noting he’s looking forward to continued growth. In the future, you can expect to see Hana around town as it expands its business to surrounding areas with a food truck, bringing authentic boba across the Lakeland community.
The Milky Way
This one’s reminiscent of s’mores. House-made boba meets brown sugar, imported black tea, and vanilla for this creamy and cozy concoction.
When indulging in the rich espresso flavor melded with the rich creamy finish of a Vietnamese Coffee Boba at Saigon Bistro, you can’t help but experience a jolt of joy (unless you don’t enjoy coffee or fine treats.)
And when you get to know the miraculous story of owner Kim Huynh, and her heart for serving food and drinks made with love, you will better understand the true joy Huynh brings to work everyday.
As a teenager living in communist ruled Vietnam, Huynh was willing to take the risk of being shot and killed to try and flee the country to find freedom. Her first two attempts to leave Vietnam were thwarted, but her third attempt resulted in her piling into—along with 36 other individuals—a fishing boat made to accommodate 12 people.
After three days at sea, the boat’s motor died, and it appeared Huynh and her fellow refugees would perish at sea. But as Huynh recalls, she and others fervently cried out to God, praying for a miracle. She vividly remembers waking up from a long sleep to find three dolphins swimming next to the boat, moving in tandem with a strong current that eventually pushed the boat to safety, after nearly a week at sea.
Huynh spent about a month in a Malaysian refugee camp—where she met her husband—and then moved to California when an American family sponsored her.
When the couple opened Saigon Bistro 14 years ago they became the de facto original boba maker in Lakeland. Yes, boba is originally from Taiwan, but Huynh said it was a trendy beverage that fit nicely alongside her fresh Vietnamese food that includes everything from pho to ramen to rice noodle dishes and more.
“Boba is very fresh…and it’s trendy with the younger crowd,” she said. “The young kids feel so ‘cool’ drinking it, kind of like Starbucks coffee.”
Huynh prides herself on the wide variety of boba offerings Saigon serves up. Aside from the Vietnamese Coffee, some of the other most popular include Boys Milk Tea, coconut, cookies and cream, and passion twist.
Vietnamese Coffee Boba
Max Gomez tried boba tea for the first time in 2014. His girlfriend, now fiancée, Kim Huynh introduced him to it, and they began frequenting boba shops in Tampa—but they craved authentic tea closer to home.
To satisfy their craving, they started experimenting with recipes here in Lakeland. Once they found a few brews they liked, they decided to share them with the community. Max took courses at Catapult and set up shop at the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market. Within a year of opening his business, he was awarded one of Catapult’s $10,000 micro-grants. He also purchased a food truck so he could drive around Lakeland, Tampa and Orlando to bring the joy of boba across Central Florida.
While most milk teas are made from powder, MK Boba doesn’t use any powders. Max believes in using fresh, high quality ingredients. And unlike other shops, which rely on dairy powders to mix their drinks, MK offers dairy-free alternatives like almond, oat or coconut milk to top off your tea.
MK Boba is on the path to opening a brick-and-mortar store in the heart of Lakeland. Until then, visit mkbobatealkld.com to see where you can catch the truck. And while you’re at it, pre-order your tea so you can skip the line and pick up a bottle to go.
Fresh, sweet strawberry puree, your choice of milk, and earthy ceremonial matcha for a decadent yet balanced beverage.
See the menu, scope out upcoming events and preorder tea at mkbobatealkld.com.
After 15 years in business, Tea Largo owner Kristin Miller has one goal: keep encouraging people to try new things.
If you’ve visited Tea Largo, you know it by its eclectic Floridian decor; colorful murals and mosaics cover every inch of the space. “I’m not exactly a ‘less is more’ type of person,” Kristin laughs. “I don’t do ‘simple’ well.” Its menu is no different. Think layered superfood bowls, vegan baked goods, 50+ varieties of loose leaf tea, and more.
Tea Largo was born after Kristin discovered loose leaf tea in 2007 and was struck by how flavorful tea can be. She started experimenting with new brews at home, and opened her shop with the hope of helping Lakelanders infuse their days with more joy and novelty.
Among her tea concoctions, she also started making homemade boba—and it’s been on the Tea Largo menu ever since. It’s a customer favorite.
Tea Largo’s your place to go if you’re looking for a customizable experience. With more than 21 different drink inclusions, mix-ins, toppings, bubbles and swirls, everything on the menu is made to order.
Along with its regular menu staples, Tea Largo gets creative with its seasonal drinks—like this fall’s iced apple butter cider. Also new to the menu is protein boba, a rich and satiating alternative that packs a nutritional punch.