Boba isn't the most popular beverage in Korea ... yet. Coming from a place where boba was virtually anywhere and was considered as "cool" as the drink itself, I wasn't used to not having these around. I never was a huge boba consumer even back in Los Angeles, but still, not having these black, soft and addictingly tasteless balls of tapioca (whatever THAT is, right?) was definitely a culture shock for me. It was years since my arrival when I saw my first boba ball, and it was here at Gong Cha, a beverage franchise spread across Seoul.
Gong Cha is unique and special in different ways. To start, it's a beverage franchise. Although in America, beverage franchises may be common largely due to the explosion boba has seen, Korea rarely has beverage franchises that ONLY sell beverages. Gongcha is probably one of the very few that only offer drinks. Other cafes (which are virtually beverage stands) usually offer some bakery goods or even flat out food to enjoy alongside your coffee whether it be hot or cold, but Gong Cha has none of those items in their menu. Understanding why cafes opt to have food sold alongside their drinks, it often makes me think how Gong Cha's make a profit -- which shows how unfamiliar the concept of an only beverage stand in Korea is to me even now.
When I first went, I was confused about what exactly I needed to do but when I finally somehow got my drink, I completely fell for it. Of course, each drink tastes different so I can't judge the taste of the other drinks but the way the tapioca balls just slurp past the thick straw the employees pluck unto the top.. it's really an indescribable feeling. For those who've longed to drink some boba and chew on the small mysterious "pearls" (as they are called in Gong Cha), Gong Cha is definitely the place to come.
Gong Cha locations are usually either similar to a cafe where the drink can be enjoyed within the joint or beverage stands at shopping malls where drinks are taken to go. The Gong Cha near Ewha Women's University Station was the former and although it wasn't too fancy, it was definitely clean, organized and it had a comfortable atmosphere. In other words, it was simple, and seeing that Gong Cha "simply" sells beverages, the way the interior looked reflected their agenda.
There are several things to notice about this location that are quite significant.
First of all, the chairs and tables are all either wooden or plastic so they aren't the comfiest seats that you might expect to sit on at a cafe. Although, like I aforementioned, it was quite comfortable despite having to sit on a solid surface, it's definitely not a place where you can just sit for hours and talk. Of course, you could, but it's not the most comfortable choice for elongated periods of time and since people are always walking around the location, it does get quite busy and even loud. I would say that it's comfortable enough for you and anyone else to sit and finish the drink but not necessarily to spend too much time past that last sip or tapioca ball. The flexibility of the chairs and tables also allow for customers to sit however they would like, whether it be to accommodate a group of only two or twelve.
Second, is the fact that this beverage franchise actually has restrooms right on the side of the location. It's a BEVERAGE franchise that only sells beverages, mind you. Most cafes the size of this Gong Cha location would not have restrooms available to the public like this, but seeing that they allow their customers to do their business while getting their drink on personally impressed me.
Since, like I said, there's not much complexity in this joint, there isn't much to show in regards to the location's interior design. It was definitely a simple look and a comfortable one where customers aren't burdened by any elegant or fancy surroundings, which also appealed to me. It's definitely a great place to hang out and have fun with friends while sipping on some drinks that are also fun to drink -- or should I say, eat?
Like I've aforementioned several times already, Gong Cha only offers beverages and although I've obviously not tasted all of the options they offer, I can say that I'm impressed with how the drinks taste. Whenever I go, I often don't get too complicated or creative and just order the simplest and most basic drink Gong Cha offers, which is the Black Milk Tea, which actually doesn't look black as you can see in the following pictures.
As you're able to see, the tapioca balls are clearly visible in the bottom of the drink and although at first sight it may not seem like there's much, there's actually quite a bit. If you're just drinking your drink without any intent to get as many tapioca balls as you can in one sip, you will most likely have some balls left over when your drink is all sipped up. That's when you get to pull up the remaining balls and chew them on their own, which doesn't taste too well (actually, they don't taste like anything at all -- which ironically makes them not taste too well). In short, there are plenty of tapioca balls to get you chewing in every sip, which I've really enjoyed while drinking my milk tea.
According to my dad, who tasted my drink, the taste of the milk tea is very similar to soybean milk or "doo-yoo" (두유) in Korean. I can see how he came up with that conclusion, but I feel that the milk tea is sweeter and there's definitely a difference between the two because I'm not too fond of soybean milk whilst really enjoying my milk tea. I feel that the texture's definitely different, the milk tea being lighter but yeah, certainly, it's similar.
Seeing me enjoy my drink, my dad decided to grab a drink of his own. He went up and came back with this drink, which was called the Taro Milk Tea.
As you can see, there are no tapioca balls in this drink -- rather, he decided to put in some aloe. I tried it, and although it didn't have the chewiness of the tapioca balls (which personally appeals to me more), it was definitely sweet and it had its own charm. My dad liked the aloe better and the taste of the milk tea he ordered, so it's all about what fits best to your taste buds. There are so many options that it's difficult to say that a certain milk tea is my favorite.. simply because a new one that tastes better might arise once I try it. The diversity Gong Cha offers really keeps customers coming back and trying all of the different flavors you can taste.
Drinks at Gong Cha aren't too expensive overall. Most drinks go from 3,000 won to 5,000 won, which is a reasonable price for a drink that will definitely satisfy you and keep you quite water-full. There's a separate price for all of the different drink options, so take a look at the menu and choose the flavor you may be craving most!
A unique aspect about Gong Cha is that you can customize your drink -- obviously not completely but there are options you can choose to make a drink fit for you. There are 5 total steps that outline how you can order, and for those who will be going for the first time, some parts might throw you off as you decide which might be better for the drink rather than for you. Although I'm not the most experienced Gong Cha drinker around, I'll outline the steps out to prepare you for what's ahead when go up to the counter to order a drink.
STEP 1: Order your drink.
Take a look at the menu and find a drink flavor you're craving. Ponder between several choices you have in mind and discern which flavor you'll feel the most satisfaction and joy from. Memorize the name as you will need to repeat it unto the cashier. That's it.
STEP 2: Choose your size.
There are two sizes: LARGE or JUMBO. Quite odd ain't it? Most beverage stands would offer a small, medium or large but Gong Cha doesn't offer little, regular and a lot. Put it simply, it offers a lot and a LOT, which at first I found quite amusing. I've only bought large drinks and it's filled me quite a bit already so I've never dare to try Jumbo. If you're thirsty though, go for it. Just don't overestimate your stomach from that very temporarily and unrealistic desire.
STEP 3: Choose your topping.
There are 6 different toppings which you can add unto the drink to add the unique yet brilliant solid feel to the completely liquid drink. Most people tend to get the Pearls, which is what Koreans call the tapioca balls, but there's a variety of toppings you can choose. I haven't tried all of them, so I can't give you a description for each but think of each topping as an adventure you could undertake. Although you might find nothing special, there's that chance you might find the taste you're looking for.
STEP 4: Choose your sugar level.
This was the trickiest question I've received in quite a while: how much sugar would you like on your drink? I honestly wasn't sure what would fit best. I chose 30%, simply because I knew in the back of my head that too much sugar isn't good for you and not having any would be bland. I feel it was a smart first choice, since it really made my taste buds dance. It's really your choice though, but you need to ponder about two things when you pick, both the taste of the drink and your personal health. If you have any questions, I'm sure you can ask the cashier for any further details.
STEP 5: Choose your ice level.
Ice can cool your drink, but it can also take up a lot of space in your drink. For that reason, as soon as I was asked this question, I chose to not any ice but that was a reckless and swift decision. Having some ice to keep the drink cool is quite necessary, so having about 50% is probably the best balance. There are only three choices for this so you can't be too specific but I feel those are the only options that are really needed.
Once you get past this, a sticker is applied unto your cup with all of the details of your specifications and after a few minutes (depending on your drink), it will be ready to enjoy.
One more tip.
When you go pick up your drink, the person giving you your drink will ask you whether you want him or her to have the straw insert into your drink for you. Knowing that they knew how to do it better than I did, I didn't hesitate in having them do it for me but my dad just brought the straw separately. The result: poor technique in inserting the straw in the right location at the right speed and right timing -- therefore, an eventual success after an uncomfortable and regrettable aftermath. Unless you've done it in the past and are confident that the drink won't be spurting out everywhere, just accept the employee's disguised offer to have the straw inserted for you. You will definitely not regret that decision.
There are numerous Gong Cha stands around Seoul, so use the Korea Gong Cha website to find the closest location near you. Whether it be a stand in a mall or an actual indoor location, it's worth a visit!
If you want to come visit the Gong Cha location I introduced in this post, refer to this post on PizzaGate, which happens to be right next to this location. Click on "How can I get there" on the menu and it'll take you both to the pizzeria and the Gong Cha. After grabbing some pizza at Pizza Gate, Gong Cha is a perfect way to end the meal, although you may be fully stuffed through this combination.