Beyond the bubbles

Boba Cafe

5131 Freeport Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95822

(916) 455-1687

There are several places in town that serve the kind of regional mixture of Chinese food popular in Taiwan. Yang’s Noodle (see “Taiwanese Steez,” SN&R Dish November 11, 2013) is one. Boba Cafe is another. It’s located on a section of Freeport Boulevard that’s home to a bunch of other great Asian food offerings including Oto’s Marketplace, Mahoroba Japanese Bakery and Blue Moon Cafe and Karaoke.

Boba Cafe’s Chinese name translates to something like “Shandong Noodle Shop.” Yes, there are indeed noodles (and tons of boba milk tea or “bubble tea” options featuring the drink’s chewy “pearls”), but those namesake items only actually comprise a small part of the menu.

According to Chinese-food history—which can differ greatly depending on the source—Shandong cuisine often offers more grain-based dishes than rice-based ones. So we started there, ordering a thousand-layer pancake, a scallion pancake, a pan-fried beef bun, and a sesame bread with ham and egg.

The thousand-layer pancake resembled deep-fried roti bread, which is found in South Asian or Southeast Asian cuisine. It had lots of texture, but not much flavor. In contrast, the scallion pancake was salty, crunchy on the outside, chewy inside, and featured a lingering scallion aftertaste. The pan-fried beef bun with its doughy, crunchy wrapping strangely resembled the texture of a Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme, but it’s smaller, with a much richer flavor. Likewise, the sesame bread with ham and egg seemed like something an American fast-food chain might serve—if it actually baked fresh, flaky flatbreads in-house. Of the four, the scallion pancake was the tastiest.

Switching regions, Boba Cafe’s Taiwanese-style beef noodle soup is made with a slightly spicy, vinegary, hearty and starchy broth that’s replete with thick chunks of beef and skinny alkaline noodles. Compared to Yang’s homemade noodles, however, these don’t quite stack up.

Boba Cafe’s pork dumplings, however, are definitely better than Yang’s take on the dish. Here, they’re served as a firm dough wrapping filled with a rich pork broth and a small ball of meat. The bok choy and pork dumplings likewise impressed. These are bigger, pan-fried and wickedly addicting. They had a crispy bottom and a hollow shell perfect for soaking up a vinegar sauce that accompanied the order.

This eatery may be one of the only places in town that carries the Shanghainese dish called cifantuan which, here, is billed as “rice cake with fried bread stick and shredded pork.” Essentially, it’s a giant cylinder of rice filled with dry shredded pork, fried dough and diced pickled veggies. They’re heated in a steamer and kind of look like rice burritos once they’re done. Boba Cafe’s version is a bit dry, but that was remedied easily with a little dollop of hot sauce and soy sauce.

Speaking of dishes popular in Shanghai, we tried a dish the restaurant called “Taiwan Style Stewed Pork Over Rice,” but it more closely resembled Shanghai’s hong shao rou dish (red-braised pork). Boba’s version is a tender, deep-red colored pork marinated in earthy aromatic spices (ginger, garlic and star anise, maybe?) and copious amounts of soy sauce. Paired with an egg and a heaping pile of rice, it’s one of the most comforting rice plates in Sacramento.

On our way out, we sampled the black sesame milk tea and several “Delight” drinks including the Strawberry Delight, Mango Delight and Mango & Coconut Delight (all ordered without boba, because we were already full). The black sesame milk tea was grainy, slightly sweet and quite hearty—not a good choice if you’ve already eaten a ton of bread-based food. Each of the “Delights” was a smoothie topped with jelly and fresh fruit. The Mango & Coconut was the best, but all were sweet and refreshing.

After several visits, we had no better understanding of what makes a good boba drink or even what Shandong food really is, but none of that really matters. With its tasty Chinese snacks and rice plates, Boba Cafe is a great place to go beyond the bubble tea drink.