Arggggh! Of course, I used up the perfect place in New York to celebrate National Tapioca Day already. That’s just my luck! I have to look at the future national food holiday calendar more often, haha.
But let me not get ahead of myself here. Did you know that tapioca is actually a plant? It’s a starch that’s extracted from the cassava plant, native to Latin and South America, but now found all over the world. A gluten-free starch that’s almost all protein-free, tapioca is used in a ton of culinary cultures, from the West Indies to the Philippines, India, Brazil, and Ghana. In many cultures it’s used as a thickening agent in pepper pots, chilis, and curries; it’s also a readily available porridge (and is commonly called “Poor Man’s” food in more than one civilization) and even sliced and deep fried into cassava chips. (They used to sell these at my local grocery store; they were delicious, a mild flavor very much like potato chips, and I miss them!)
But here in the United States we know tapioca best as those translucsent pearls you find in tapioca pudding, giving pudding a thicker, texured consistency. Tapioca pudding isn’t really a dessert delicacy that’s taking the nation by storm; even in its heyday, the food was mostly used as a home-cooking phenomenon, relegated to dinner parties and the My-T-Fine baking shelf in the supermarket. I never liked tapioca pudding, after one instance as a kid when I ordered it, not knowing there’d be little balls of starch in my pudding, and swore off it forever. Don’t make my mistake! Tapioca pudding can be delicious, enjoyable, and, even in this day and age, surprising. Go to the Loving Hut in Chelsea to be utterly surprised. The vegan cafe specializes in foods you expect to have a ton of meat and dairy in them, but are surprisingly free of animal products. (Buffalo mac and cheese, without egg macaroni, cheese, OR buffalo? You have to see it to believe it!) Take their vegan tapioca pudding for example: this creamy, smooth dessert offers a non-dairy version of a dish that’s usually all milk and eggs. Top it off with fresh fruit each time and you’ve got the perfect new ending to a tried-and-true recipe.
The Loving Hut
348 7th Ave (between 29th St & 30th St)
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“I also am kind of addicted to their tapioca pudding, I can’t leave without ordering it, there’s always different fruit inside each time, super yummy.”–Ariela R.
“My first time there, I bought the Avocado Salad. It was beautiful and colorful and delicious. Gorgeous fresh greens, avocado sliced 1/4 of an inch thin, red and yellow peppers, walnuts drizzled over with balsamic dressing. Mmmm! Since then, I’ve also tried and loved: their Tofu Salad, Crispy Vegan burger, Happy Dumplings, Spinach Quesadilla, Energy Sandwhich, and Tapioca Pudding with Fruit. Lunchtime is madness, but your food is always worth the wait.”–Irina T.
In more recent years, “tapioca” in New York has become synonymous with “sago” or “boba”–otherwise known as bubble tea. Those fancy “bubble” pearls you see in cold Asian flavored sweet teas? Yep, that’s tapioca! And the popular Taiwanese drink has gotten huge over here in New York, particularly in the many Chinatowns of Manhattan and the boroughs. I have to hit myself over the head for this one, because one of the best places to go for bubble tea in the city has already been recommended by me for another holiday 😦 Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng, which can be found in Flushing, Borough Park, and in the heart of Chinatown, is a great place for authentic bubble tea that has real tapioca pearls and real tea in the mix. You can read all about it in my post for June 10th’s national food holiday, National Iced Tea Day. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t go get some for National Tapioca Day, too! Or you can try out another great bubble tea chain a little north of Chinatown, in the East Village. Saint’s Alp Teahouse is a hugely popular place for all your bubble tea needs. Founded in Hong Kong, this New York branch serves its bubble tea as “frothy tea,” complete with the tea-infused dark brown tapioca pearls lounging at the bottom of your cup. The tapioca is flavorful and chewy, unlike smaller pearls that don’t achieve the same texture. And Saint’s Alp serves it the Hong Kong way, which means a creamier, sweeter tea base than Ten Ren’s Taiwanese variety. Coming from a girl who LOVES her milk tea sweet, Saint’s Alp is the place to go!
Saint’s Alp Teahouse
39 3rd Ave (between Great Jones St & Bowery)
“The bubble tea fad is far from over at the New York outpost of this Hong Kong-based chain founded in 1994. Outfitted with a handful of lacquered-wood tables and square stools, St. Alps is a popular stop for chattering NYU students and high schoolers, who slurp a broad array of brightly colored hot and cold tea drinks out of tall, milkshake-style glasses while pop music blares in the background. Nibble-size, $5.50 portions of vermicelli, udon, or green tea noodles, and “crispy savouries”—chunks of bland, deep-fried radish, shrimp, or cuttlefish—are also on offer, but the real draw here is “frothy tea,” which comes with a spoon for scooping up the irresistibly chewy tapioca balls nestled at the bottom of the glass.”–New York Magazine
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“I ordered the Black Milk Tea with tapioca pearls. My friend ordered the Peach drink with tapioca pearls, while my other friend ordered a sweetened green tea without tapioca pearls. My tea was perfectly sweetened, creamy, while the tapioca pearls were all perfectly springy and chewy.”–Melanie T.
“I’m a big fan of this bubble tea place! Hands down the best bubble tea place in NYC. I stopped by here only for the bubble tea after endulging myself in some comfort food and desserts. This place hit the spot just right and left an impression on me. Their tapioca balls are perfect in every way and nicely flavored. The drinks are sweet just the way I like them so come here if you like great tapioca balls and sweet tea!”–Frank S.
For what it’s worth, though, tapioca pudding and even tapioca bubble tea have become pretty commonplace in the New York culinary pantheon–I mean, can you even throw a lychee nut in Chinatown without hitting yet another bubble tea parlor? If new, exciting dishes are your thing, then celebrate National Tapioca Day at Spice Market. Not an actual spice market, this Asian fusion restaurant meets Western style and innovative new ways to have traditional pan-Asian meals. And they prove that you can have tapioca in New York without going the sweet route! As I said before, tapioca is used in many Asian countries as a starch, porridge, and even an element in savory foods. To showcase this, Spice Market offers an appetizer featuring shaved Ahi tuna, Asian pears, and chili-infused tapioca pearls. Spicy tapioca? Who would’ve ever thunk it?? Apparently the people at Spice Market! The offering is a huge hit, the mix of the textures–chewy tapioca, butter-smooth tuna, and crisp pears–really makes a great start to a dinner here. And it’s all served with a chilled coconut broth, which adds some needed sweetness to the spicy tapioca. I’ve definitely had coconut in my bubble tea before, but with chili-infused tapioca pearls is a totally new flavor combination! The rest of the menu here–which includes lobster summer rolls, red curried duck, and seafood laksa–looks equally as interesting and yummy, but I’d go here for the shaved tuna and chili tapioca, for the curiosity on such a dish alone!
403 W 13th St (between 9th Ave & Washington St)
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“First dish up, shaved tuna with chili tapioca. Excellent way to clean the palate, it was sweet balanced with the perfect amount of acidity and just an ever so slight hint spice.”–Phil L.
“Shaved tuna- loved the chilled tuna, it was really fresh. Loved the sweet and spicy and play on texture with the tapioca balls. My non fish fan bf even liked this.”–Stephanie C.
Make sure you check out the updated NYC Food Holidays Map to find this most recent holiday!