When it comes to boba tea, wider is better. No, that’s not quite right. Wider is essential.
As in: The straw must be oversize, of sufficient girth, of substantial width, enough to allow easy passage of the largest chewiest tapioca balls (called boba or pearls) as they’re sipped mouthward from the bottom of the cup.
A straw that’s too narrow? One that means pearls must be spooned up, not suctioned? That’s a major boba blunder — one that Kevalin Pinsuwan, owner of Num Num Boba in Northwest Reno, has committed.
“I accidentally ordered the wrong straws, and they were way too small,” she said, laughing. “I don’t like it if the boba doesn’t come up the straw, so I thought, ‘That’s not going to work.’ “
Boba tea (also called bubble tea) is a family of drinks that, at their simplest, consist of ice, tea, milk, flavoring and black tapioca orbs shaken together, then served in a tall cup with a sealed cellophane lid.
NUM NUM BOBA
Address: 6300 Mae Anne Ave., suite 3
Phone: (775) 409-4825
Boba tea emerged in Taiwan in the 1980s. In the past five years, boba tea shops (or places whose menu includes boba) have spread across Reno and Sparks, now numbering more than a dozen.
Num Num Boba opened in May 2020, the first restaurant in Northwest Reno to specialize in boba tea (and related drinks). The name Num Num onomatopoeically celebrates the sound children make while appreciating something tasty.
And the name fits. Boba culture often incorporates a whimsical cuteness, what the Japanese call kawaii. At Num Num Boba, Pinsuwan harnesses this sensibility and makes it her own, creating a place whose look, feel and flavor reflect her longtime passion for the pearls.
“I love boba,” she said. “I love children. I like the atmosphere and people coming in and hanging out and toys and teenagers coming in. This is what I like. I like sweet. This is me.”
What is that stuffed animal?
The other afternoon, people were indeed coming in to Num Num Boba. Some ordered immediately; others browsed the menu rendered in colorful scripts on one wall. Boba mixers and other machines gathered behind a counter blocked in white and golden yellow.
While they waited for their orders, the customers (mostly Gen Z) checked their phones near the giant boba cup (with appropriately giant straws) or settled into hanging wicker chairs (for that 70s lounging). Displays of Asian snacks (Hello Panda!) and boba paraphernalia (miniature boba backpacks) were as much décor as they were items for sale.
Boba beauty shots were pinned to a bulletin board. A Num Num Boba mural glowed Veuve Clicquot orange. Tchotchkes abounded: artificial flowers in wee pots, a cluster of cocktail picks shaped like apple slices, plump stuffed spherical smiling whatchamacallits (perhaps baby bobas?).
“I just brought in what I like,” a smiling Pinsuwan said of this hodgepodge furnishing that creates the ideal setting for sipping boba tea.
Marrying sweet and chew
At the shop, standard boba begins with milk tea. Pinsuwan, who is Thai, is particular about her tea. “We order it from Thailand. When I go back, I want to know how they make the tea,” she said, so she visited the producer she sources from.
Flavors follow tea. There are nearly three dozen choices, from coconut to honeydew, taro to red guava. When it’s time to load toppings, folks can stick with classic black pearls or explore more extravagant options: matcha custard, lychee jelly, blueberry boba pops and two dozen more.
The pops are gelatinized spheres fashioned using agar agar seaweed powder, like the spheres made popular by molecular gastronomy. The delicate pops burst on the tongue, releasing spurts of juice while providing a textural counterpoint to the wildly chewy tapioca pearls.
Num Num Boba also offers fruit teas (liked iced teas) built with flavors and toppings, as well as specialty drink showpieces like the strawberry shortcake mingling vanilla milk tea, strawberry boba pops, strawberry jelly and crunchy Graham crackers.
Sometimes, new boba tea versions arise from customer requests, Pinsuwan said.
“People come in and say, ‘I saw you had strawberry cheesecake. Can you make a mango cheesecake, a matcha cheesecake? Can you make cookies and cream?’ “
Whatever the style of boba tea, there’s an easy explanation for their popularity beyond taste or textural pleasure, Pinsuwan added: “It’s a drink and a snack in the same cup.”
Saving and wrapping
Pinsuwan emigrated to Reno from Thailand in the early 2000s. She worked as a cocktail waitress at local casinos. She met her husband while slinging drinks at the Silver Legacy.
“It was hard work,” she said. “When we had two young kids, with cocktailing, I said, ‘My back is not taking this anymore.’ I wanted for so long to open a restaurant.”
The couple saved money for years. In March 2020, they were ready to open, having invested nearly $100,000 in rent and buildout, Pinsuwan said. Then the pandemic shutdown began. Final inspections couldn’t be completed. “We just had to wait.”
In May 2020, when Num Num Boba finally debuted, the plan called for more than boba tea. There also would be smoothies made with real fruit, coffees and other hot drinks, and a puffy treat from Hong Kong.
That treat was the bubble wrap waffle, cooked in a special iron so the waffle resembles bubble wrap packing material. The wraps are stuffed with fillings like banana Nutella or sweet-salty bacon jam, then folded and served in a cup. For gilding the waffle, there are two toppings: s’mores or boba-brown sugar syrup.
“You have to have the iron very hot,” Pinsuwan said of the bubble wraps. “It should be crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. You just break it off in pieces.”
Bao from Honey Bakery — some say they’re the best in Reno — have joined the beyond-boba selections at the shop. Pork, teriyaki, curry chicken and mushroom chicken buns are sold from the case on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
A sip for Pride
The other afternoon, Pinsuwan showed a visitor a drink she’d created for Pride Month, one featuring rainbow-colored strata of jellies and boba pops. The visitor also tried a blueberry boba tea inspired by halo-halo, the Filipino shave ice.
Following proper boba procedure, the visitor shook the tea, then pierced the top seal with the diagonally sliced end of the straw, drawing the black boba marbles upward through slush and jelly and milky tea.
The straw, of course, was wide enough.