Pittsburgh has a wide array of bubble tea options, some of which are solely bubble tea establishments while others are housed on restaurant menus. Tsaocaa is a recent arrival on the scene, and the Chinese chain offers several unique twists to bubble tea that make it a welcome addition to the local landscape.
Tsaocaa first opened in China in 2016, with its first U.S. location opening in Philadelphia in 2018. The Pittsburgh location opened in June 2020 on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill next door to Everyday Noodles. The minimalist storefront has wall-to-wall windows that give the space a large, open feeling. The soft lighting and beige interior were designed to fit the company’s aesthetic across its stores, and the menu gives a new, thoughtful spin on the now classic drink.
Bubble tea began in Taiwan in the ’80s and is traditionally made with powdered milk, but Tsaocaa makes theirs with fresh ingredients. As their website, which calls the company Tsaocha, states, “It seems that there is a Holy Land of milk tea in the heart of the founder, and the team is on the pilgrimage road.” The website also highlights that 朝茶 (cháo chá), the name of the company in Chinese, contains 朝, meaning pilgrimage, with the second character, 茶, meaning tea.
I made my pilgrimage to Tsaocaa via bus to pick up an order I’d placed online. In addition to a variety of menu categories including fresh-brewed tea, fruit tea, milk swirl, milk bubble tea, and (non-alcoholic) mojitos, the store also sells desserts such as macarons and egg waffles, a popular Hong Kongese treat.
For the drinks, customization options abound. You can select the amount of ice you prefer, or choose the degree of heat if you’d like a warmer beverage. You can also choose the sweetness level: 0-100%, for those with a sweet tooth. They also offer a variety of toppings, such as brown sugar jelly, mango boba, crystal pearl, purple rice, and red bean.
My order was ready several minutes before the pick-up time, so I didn’t have to wait once I arrived. My two drinks came in a plastic bag with a middle partition that kept the drinks upright to avoid spillage, which was helpful when I took the drinks on the bus back to my apartment. The cups themselves seem designed for patrons on the go, with special holes in the lid that can reseal conveniently.
The first was the lychee mojito with 30% sugar and mango boba. The drink was carbonated, giving it a sharp, fizzy surprise on the first sip as the lime and mint came through powerfully. The lychee was slightly more subtle and complemented the sweetness and lime surprisingly well. With each sip, I worried the flavors might separate and become dissonant, but they stayed woven sweetly together to create an unexpectedly refreshing drink that was a fun, bubblegum pink color with mint leaves, thin slices of lime, and two lychee halves floating in the liquid.
I enjoyed the drink so much I didn’t realize the mango boba were missing until I was halfway back to my apartment, but the lychees made up for the lack of boba as I neared the bottom of the cup.
My second drink was the jasmine green tea with 30% sugar and herb jelly. On the first sip, this drink was more bitter, with cheese milk foam floating on the top mixing with the slightly bitter tea. According to U.S. Tsaocaa brand holder Eddie Zheng, the cheese milk foam is made with cheese powder, rose sea salt, and cream. When it remained separate from the tea, the textures and mouthfeel felt dissonant, with the taste of the tea accompanied by unusual thickness from the cream.
But with a slight stir and some time to mix, the mild sweetness of the cream melded with the tea to create a smoother sweetness throughout. The herb jelly didn’t have a strong flavor to it, but the texture — slightly softer than silken tofu and less firm than Jell-O — added a cool and refreshing element to the drink that complemented the milky liquid.
Sipping Tsaocaa’s bubble tea made me feel like I was back in Shanghai during a sweltering summer, and I’m eager to try more of their many menu options as Pittsburgh’s summer continues to heat up.
5871 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill
Other places to go for a bubble tea summer:Banh Mi & Ti
4502 Butler St., Lawrenceville
Bae Bae’s Kitchen
951 Liberty Ave. Unit 1B, Downtown
Ineffable Cà Phê
3920 Penn Ave., Lawrenceville
Rose Tea Cafe
414 S Craig St., Oakland
Search “Rose Tea Cafe (Taiwanese Cuisine)” on Facebook
5875 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill
Kung Fu Tea
2107 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill
5888 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill
117 Oakland Ave., Oakland
229 Atwood St., Oakland
3800 Forbes Ave., Oakland; 300 S. Craig St., Oakland