Call them alternatives to coffee shops: Bubble tea businesses have popped up all over the Buffalo area, from Taichi Bubble Tea to Tea Leaf Cafe and Buffalo Bubble Tea, to name a few. As options become more plentiful, the competition encourages better quality.
Lucky Koi Bubble Tea, at 3216 Main St. in University Heights, held a soft opening in mid-February before its official launch March 1. The new business takes a healthier, dietary-friendly approach to bubble tea, trusting honey and a brown sugar-based house syrup as sweeteners instead of fructose.
Customization is a must in bubble tea, and Lucky Koi excels through a variety of unusual powder flavors and multiple preparations - from milky (15 flavors) to juicy (17 flavors) to sour (six flavors). Prices are $4.75 for standard 20-ounce cups in milky, juicy and sour categories. Milky teas may be blended into smoothies, while juicy can become a slushy; both run for $5.50.
The bubbles - or tapioca pearls - were a nice middle-of-the-road consistency, with some chewiness without being a nuisance. Lychee or rainbow jellies are available for an additional 75 cents.
The flavor of each drink is further molded through a choice of custom-blended tea base; green, black, oolong and white are the options. A lychee bubble tea made with oolong will taste significantly different than lychee with white tea, for instance, which makes the permutations greater (as well as the margin for error, we suppose). Customers are encouraged to ask questions, especially for which tea pairs best with a certain flavor.
The fresh-crushed sugar cane ($6.50) requires manual labor from the staff, as a sugar cane juicing machine, priced around $200, must be hand-cranked several times, with the sugar cane bent in half between churn cycles, to produce enough juice.
Here's a video, below, with employee Carmen Su at work at the sugar cane machine. (It's best watched by doubling the speed of the playback in the video settings).
By itself, sugar cane produces a natural, if faint, sweetness, quite apparent in Lucky Koi's fresh beverage. If you've ever had fresh juice from a coconut, the two tastes are fairly similar.
A milky specialty bubble tea called Ube ($5.25), which means purple yam, delivered a concentrated flavor - not too sweet - one slightly reminiscent of sweet potatoes. It was the favorite of the four teas we tried.
The shiso plum, described as tart, wasn't bashful in its sweetness, and it was nowhere near as tart as cranberry juice. The plum flavor was far more potent than a more subtle milky taro, prepared with a green tea base that dueled for the dominating flavor.
The flavors are pan-Asian, with Japanese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese all represented. Pandan (vanilla-like), taro (slightly floral, a little nutty), durian, longan and lychee are all worth trying, as they range from subtle to powerful. See the full menu here.
The primary food option available is a Hong Kong Waffle ($3.50), a popular Asian street food crafted fresh in the waffle iron next to the counter. The end result doesn't look much like a waffle, but the small bubbles were easily torn apart, ideal for sharing.
INFO: Lucky Koi Bubble Tea, 3216 Main St. Hours: 2 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 2 p.m. to midnight Friday, noon to midnight Saturday and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.