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Monday, September 12, 2005

Midtown coffee and tea bar a beverage trend-setter

Tropioca Tea & Coffee Bar, 2808 Milam St. Suite G. Midtown Houston in Little Saigon
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Tropioca Tea & Coffee Bar, 2808 Milam St. Suite G. Midtown Houston in Little Saigon
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Tropioca Tea & Coffee Bar, 2808 Milam St. Suite G. Midtown Houston in Little Saigon

Twist on tapioca
Midtown coffee and tea bar a beverage trend-setter
Chronicle Correspondent

THE latest beverage craze has rolled into Houston's Midtown at the Tropioca Tea & Coffee Bar, 2808 Milam St. Suite G. It is attracting visitors from near and far by quenching their thirst and satisfying their affinity for tapioca.

"It's not a fad," said Micki Immanivong, who co-owns the café with her husband, James Lam, and brother-in-law, David Lam. "It's definitely a trend."

Often referred to as "tapioca ball drink," "bubble tea," "boba" or "pearl milk tea," this popular beverage originated in the 1980s in Taiwan, where it is still in high demand.

The traditional tapioca drink combines black tea, milk, sugar and, of course, black tapiocaballs -- marble-sized chewy balls made from cassava starch and processed with dark brown sugar. The drinks are served cold or hot in a clear tumbler with a straw big enough to suck up the tapioca balls, which sink to the bottom.

Unlike many tea and tapioca bars dominating the Bellaire area and in an effort to appeal to the American market, Midtown's Tropioca puts a twist on the traditional by serving its tapioca beverages with coffee, green tea, real fruit smoothies and milk shakes.

"(Tropioca is) the first to introduce the tapioca concept this way," Immanivong said. "It's not only a new trend in coffee bars, but it's also a new trend in tapioca bars."

While it was her intention to set Tropioca apart from its competition, Immanivong also hopes customers will "make the drive" from near and far to get their tapioca fix.

Nearly a year since it first opened, it seems Tropioca is, as it is said, fitting the bill.

"I go out of my way to come here," said Carl Norris, a 35-year-old, self-ascribed tapioca addict from the Galleria area. "It's highly addictive in a good way."

And he is not alone. There are many other Tropioca regulars, like 18-year-old Giang Duong from the Galveston area, who travel even further to get their fill of these flavorless -- yet tasty -- tapioca balls.

"Tapioca is great," said Duong, who usually visits Tropioca an average of four times per week. "It's fun because the balls. They taste good."

So, what is it about tapioca that makes it so satisfying? Perhaps, as Immanivong said, it is "all about texture."

"It's all about a chewing addiction," she said. "It makes drinking more fun."

In addition to tapioca beverages, sandwiches and desserts, Tropioca -- which is open daily and nightly and until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays -- offers customers a smoke-free, alcohol-free atmosphere accompanied by complimentary board and card games, wireless Internet, and local art and music "without feeling there is a time limit."

"I wanted to give people other reasons to choose Tropioca other than drinks," Immanivong said.

Regulars appreciate her efforts.

"It's cozy and you can get online," said Thai tea addict Thu Phan, 21.

Norris' younger brother, Clark, agreed. He said he can sit at Tropioca for hours only drinking one coffee without any problems from management.

"They've always been very nice," he said.

Tropioca presents monthly and bimonthly live local music performances and a monthly open mic night every first Friday. It exhibits local artwork every two months.

In the future, Immanivong said she hopes to combine local music with poetry nights and karaoke with live, instead of recorded, music.

Not only does the café support local artists and musicians, it also provides them with creative inspiration.

In July, the Aurora Picture Show, 800 Aurora St., created a film entitled, "It's a Trend, Not a Fad," a compilation of media art shown at Dean's Credit Closing, 316 Main St.

The film included a short video piece about a character, played by Vinod Hopson, who associates his interest in media art with his addiction to "bubble tea."

For Eileen Maxson, the film's curator and fellow bubble tea enthusiast, tapioca is tops.

For more information about the Tropioca Tea & Coffee Bar, visit .

(New Article)Tropioca a twist from dull coffee-house scene


Kelly King

Are the average, everyday, big-chain coffee shops driving you to boredom? Is your view of the usual smoothie spot just a bit played out?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, you should definitely make a visit to Tropioca Tea and Coffee Bar.

Conveniently located at 2808 Milam St., Suite G in Mekong Center Downtown, or Midtown, Tropioca offers an extremely student-friendly environment. There is free wireless Internet access and plenty of cozy space for study groups to gather for cram sessions. The bar has even extended its regular hours to 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays — around finals time, this is like heaven. The bar is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays while doors open at 9 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. on Sundays.

As if that isn't enough to make a college student jump for joy, what truly separates Tropioca from the average drink bar is the unique menu. Customers can choose from an extensively wide variety of refreshing tropical fruit smoothies, iced coffee and espresso beverages, 14 different flavors of loose-leaf teas, hot fruit blend drinks, flavored coffee and delectable desserts.

Along with the array of thirst-pleasing drinks, Tropioca is reasonably priced, with drinks ranging from $1.50 to $3.50.

Possibly the coolest feature of a cold Tropioca drink is the round, chewy tapioca balls that sit at the bottom of each drink.

With choices of passion fruit, papaya, banana, honeydew, strawberry, pineapple and even avocado, the fruit smoothie selection is nothing short of paradise.

Tropioca's loose-leaf teas and hot fruit blends are certainly fresh delights and rare to find. The iced coffee and espresso drinks come in roasted blends with chocolate or caramel and every drink can be customized to the consumer's liking. Yes, the flavored syrups and requisite espresso shots are also available.

A trip to Tropioca without taking in some dessert would be nice. But it would be even sweeter if you treat yourself to the divine tropical cheesecake or the blissfully light Captain Jacques mousse cake, made with Pandan leaf. Even a scoop of green tea ice cream would melt your sweet tooth.

With all this, Tropioca surpasses the average standards by straying from the usual menu of, say, Starbucks, by adding an inviting Asian flavor to the coffee house scene.

Houston Midtown/Little Saigon

There is the old chinatown on the eastside of downtown Houston. It is small, but it has several grocery stores, several places to eat, and a small mall.The trolley runs from downtown to chinatown during the lunch hour. Little Saigon is located in Midtown, south of downtown. There is also a trolley that runs from downtown to Little Saigon during lunch. Little Saigon is a little bigger than the chinatown downtown. It has more of everything. There is also a newer and much larger Chinatown/Little Saigon on the westside of Houston. There is a very large mall called Hong Kong City Mall within the neighborhood. The biggest difference is that people live in the westside Chinatown/Little Saigon. There is also a small lKoreantown on the northwestside and a Little India on the westside. As far as a Little Tokyo, I am not sure. Houston has so many diverse neighborhoods, its hard to keep up with what is where.

6100 Hillcroft
A collection of Latin American and Pakistani stores and restaurants.

Spicy Foods Grocery
Sheikh Chilli's Pakistani Restaurant
Mazatlan Seafood Restaurant
Chat 'n Paan Snacks
Azukar Salsa Nightclub
5000 Hillcroft from Harwin to Richmond
This is one of the better areas for Middle Eastern and Indo-Pakistani grocery stores, restaurants, clothing shops, and video stores. Places worth checking out include:

Jerusalem Halal Meat Market
Good meat market and sandwich shop with kabob sandwiches. Good Islamic stuff for sale.

Sri Balaji Bhavan Restaurant
Great place to get southern India foods including excellent masala dosa.

Standard Sweets
Another great location for inexpensive all you can eat Indian buffet.

Darband Kabobi
Specialty is Persian style chelo kabab with freshly made flat bread.

Asian American Food Market
One stop shopping for all your Indo-Pakistani groceries.

Cairo Palace Restaurant
Egyptian style restaurant and place to hang out with friends over coffee or tea.

Raja Indian Restaurant
Samosas, pakoras, thalis, and other fast food.
Bellaire from Gessner to Beltway 8
This is one the great concentrations of Chinese and Southeast Asian grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, and more. I would recommend starting off some Saturday morning at Bellaire and 59 and making your way up Bellaire, stopping off at the two Diho Markets (One is "L" shaped, the other is a long "C" shaped strip mall), continuing west on Bellaire, stopping off at the market center where Corporate meets Bellaire (Treasure Island is located here), and finishing up on the other side of the Beltway at Hong Kong City Mall. Places worth checking out include:

Vietnam Coast II for black pepper crabs and other delicacies.
Santong Snacks for regional dumplings and noodle soups.
Treasure Island for dim sum on the weekends.
Long Point Market Tour
There are several Korean grocery stores and a pair of Korean restaurants worth your investigation on Long Point.

Hyundai Department Store
8624 Long Point

Teapots, videos, weird Korean knick knacks, Jesus paintings.

Dong Yar Market
(Next door to Hyundai Department Store)

Fermented soy bean paste and hot pepper paste in giant plastic tubs.
Dried anchovies.
Boiled royal fern.
Pickled vegetables.
Banana powder beverage.
Acorn barley tea.
Honey flavor twist snacks

Oriental Super Market (Recommended)
9501 Long Point

Piping hot Korean red bean pancakes shaped like fishes in kiosk outside. 3 for $1.00.
Udon noodle samples.
Fritter mixes.
Seasoned fish and kimchi with descriptions in Korean and English.
Pumpkin gruel beverage powder.
Giant beverage boxes of peach juice, citron tea, carrot juice, and Chinese date juice.

Korean Garden Restaurant
(Next door to Oriental Super Market)

Well reviewed and recommended eatery for Korean foods. Also, down the road, Seoul Garden Restaurant with beautiful interior decoration ( waterwheel at entrance)

Memorial Market
1049 Gessner
Big grocery store with Korean, Chinese, and standard grocery store fare.

Giant electronic kimchi pickling tanks.
Korean tatami spreads.
Exotic tea gift sets.
Korean deli, soup and sandwich shop.
2600 Travis
The Cho Que Huong Center has the excellent soup restaurant, Pho Cong Ly and:

Cho Que Huong Supermarket
Hong Kong Restaurant
Thien An Sandwich Shop
Lu Quan Cafe
Nguyen Hue Restaurant
2800 Travis
The Hoa Binh shopping center includes the Hoa Binh Vietnamese supermarket, one of the best in the downtown area and:
Phnom Penh Tailor
Banh Me Ba Le Restaurant
My Phat Fashion
Pho Tau Bay

There are several other strip centers to the west on Smith with restaurants and specialty stores.

Downtown Chinatown. St Emanuel and Chartres at McKinney and Lamar
Several excellent grocery stores including Kim Hung and restaurants are concentrated right near the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Kim Hung Grocery Store
Very good Chinese grocery in a two story complex on St. Emanuel which includes eateries, liquor stores, clothing shops, and jewelry stores.

New My Canh II
Good choice for dim sum on Saturday mornings, and the starting place of Dorothy Huang's Chinatown tour through Leisure Learning.

The Lucky Inn Restaurant
Murphy Road/Wilcrest at Highway 59

A real mixture of Pakistani ( The Savoy strip center on, grocery store, video store, and jeweler), Mexican taquerias, and one or two Chinese buffet style restaurants.
Cavalcade at Airline

A gem of a Thai grocery store, Asia Market, caters to the Thai, Laotian, and Cambodian community. Laotian soups and weird stuff to snack on, on Saturdays. Located on Cavalcade between Airline and North Main.
9600 Bissonnet just at Highway 59

An interesting mix of Pakistani halal style butcher/grocery stores, restaurants and an excellent Guatemalan restaurant ( one of the best in Houston ) called, Lo Nuestro. I've been told that the newly re-opened Koh I Noor Pakistani Restaurant is very good.

Shahenshah Restaurant
Timmy Chan's Chinese Restaurant
Islamic Books
Maki Masjid Temple
Quality Sweets Chaat Restaurant
Middle East Halal Meat
Afrikiko Nigerian Restaurant
Top Flite Club
6065 Bissonnet

The Maru Ethiopian Grocery has unroasted coffee from various regions of Ethiopia, freshly made Injerra bread, teff flour, Bethany flat electric grills, Ethiopian clay coffee pots, and really fresh spices. You can buy the green coffee beans and roast them at home in your hot air pop corn popper (Wear-Ever Popcorn Pumper, available at second hand stores for about $5.00. Look for the ones which have ribs at the bottom, these will impart a spin to the beans to keep them from flying out. Use 2-3 tablespoons and roast for 7-15 minutes).
6611 Chimney Rock #10

Gran Tangolandia is your one stop shop for music from all over South America, and especially Argentina. They also stock giant bags of Mate tea, many different brands.
5406 Birdwood off North Braeswood at Braesmont

The Russia General Store is one of the coolest places in town to check out. They have Russian souvenirs including medals and pins from the Communist era, samovars, Russian style dry salami, sunflower halvah which looks a lot like something you might step in accidentally but probably tastes terrific, Russian malt beverages, lots of candies, Russian videos, music, and newspapers.
38281 Fondren

Andros Foreign Foods is a Greek oriented sandwich shop and grocery specializing in Greek videos, wines, coffee pots, spices, sailor caps, halvah, and various frozen and fresh goodies.
5600 South Gessner

Another big Chinese/Vietnamese venue. Includes:

Hong Kong Market

This place smells like a Hong Kong market. You can get ginseng, teas, herbal medicines, coconut graters, religious candles, all the cuts of meat for each critter you can think of (everything but the "oink" as they say). I noticed the packaged beef cuts say "Shoulder Road" instead of "Shoulder Roast". This was the forerunner of the new Hong Kong City Mall mega-complex on Bellaire.

Parisian Bakery
Huong Viet Restaurant
Vietnamese Noodle Shop Restaurant
7433 Bissonnet

A little cluster of West Indian places.

Caribbean Cuisine

You can get authentic Jamaican jerk chicken, Jamaican patties, roti, and curried goat here. Also, ginger beer, banana bread, jerk seasoning, and fried plantains.

Island Restaurant

Another West Indian restaurant which has not been tried by me but looks very enticing.
9500 Richmond

On both sides of the street, some interesting places such as the Sahara bakery, La Gran Sorpresa Restaurant, the World Food grocery store complex, Mi Pueblito Colombian Restaurant, and Dodo's Chicken.
11138 Westheimer at Wilcrest

The sign says "Oriental Foods" but this is Nippon Daido, Houston's Japanese grocery store. All manner of Japanese products, fresh flying fish roe, boiled lotus root, dried fish, fresh fish, chopsticks for beginners, sake, magazines, videos, this place has it all. Located in the same shopping center is a Japanese fast food cafe, and a Japanese travel agency.
7333 Hillcroft (between Bellaire and Bissonnet)

Droubi's Bakery and Imports - a nice Lebanese store, making some of the most delicious Middle Eastern style flat breads in Houston, which also sells a variety of foods from the Middle East (including Israel) and Greece, excellent selection of olives and feta cheeses, and a terrific steam table style lunch counter.
Harwin from Hillcroft to Gessner

This is another truly amazing by-way in Houston, full of discount perfumeries, sunglass stores, luggage stores, and more. One of the most interesting shops which you will find is on a side street. At 5615 Savoy Lane, you will find Paayal, an Indian store which stocks the wonderful stainless steel cookware and eating utensils, along with shelves and shelves of multi colored glass bracelets and other Indian curios. This is a great store.
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(Tapioca Pearl Milk or Boba)
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That area is becoming more diversified because of the new subdivision Shadow Lakes and the gated community of Royal Oaks being built out there. There have also been a number of older neighborhoods around Dairy Ashford/Bellarie as well as empty properties in that area which have been bulldozed and now have new housing being constructed on them as I am writing this.

Alief is still very heavily a Vietnamese area of Town--one of the mottos of the Alief-Elsik football team is that they still have more "Nguyens" than losses. Some parts are gritty--some of the older strip malls are falling apart because the new Hong Kong City Mall on Bellaire and Boone has taken away a lot their business. That, however has only led to more new construction close to it in order to keep up with the times.

One thing a lot of people do not realize about Houston's Chinatowns, including Westside Chinatown on Bellaire, is that it was originally built by Taiwanese-American investors from New York in the late 1970s who saw the huge potential of opening an Asian-Themed Supermarket in what was the mostly White and Latin area of Sharpstown. They bought an old Kroger Store that had closed during the union strikes of the late 1970s and opened up the Diho Supermarket--the first full-scale Asian Supermarket in Houston (there had been others which were the size of Convenience Stores prior to then.)

Eventually, these same investors bought land half a block down Bellaire where they built the Metropole Center--the first Asian Strip mall in Houston and relocated Diho Supermarket over there. However, Diho Plaza attracted a new Asian Supermarket known as the Welcome Foodmart which took over Diho's old space.

The two Supermarkets still occupy those adjacent Strip malls and draw heavy business--much of which comes from Asian families who live in San Antonio, Beaumont and elsewhere in the State who come to Houston to do all their specialty shopping on the weekends.

People in So-Cal do not realize that we actually have an Asian Supermarket Chain--the Hong Kong Supermarket which operates 4 locations--Harwin@ Gessner, Bellaire in the Hong Kong City Mall, Veterans Memorial Drive and Sugar Land. White, Black, and Latin Families often shop in the HK City Mall location because it has the largest fresh seafood counter in Houston and has some of the best prices on fresh vegetables and fruit this side of HEB.

I teach at HCC in the evenings and have about 30% Asian students in my class, many of whom are So-Cal transplants whose families relocated to the Houston area in order to escape the high cost of living. Some of the kids had been skeptical about Houston at first, but after being here they realized that they got a good deal in the bargain and were often happier here than they were in So-Cal. Their parents had sold houses priced at over $400,000, came here with around $200,000 and had enough to buy a new house and start a business, something they were unable to do in So-Cal due to the cost of living there.

While Houston does have its problems, it has become a model city on race relations and diversity, especially when compared to LA, Chicago and Atlanta. Keep your eye on us--Gordon Quan will be our next Mayor when Lee Brown steps down next year, I guarantee it.


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Gef said...

Hey that is way cool! Thanks for the insight
Sean Cody