Editor's note: In "Fast Food International," Krista Garcia will take us around New York to the many international fast food chains that have landed in the five boroughs. She blogs at goodiesfirst.com.
Country of origin: Hong Kong
Locations worldwide: Around 23 in Hong Kong, Macau, and the US
NYC locations: One in the East Village and one in Williamsburg
Taiwanese-style bubble tea isn't the hard-to-find beverage it once was. In fact, I recently noticed a cart in the Financial District, hardly the epicenter of tapioca pearl drinks. When the first Saint's Alp—curious punctuation and all—appeared in the East Village in 1999, though, I thought it was the coolest thing since sliced bread. And they even did that differently.
Opening a Hong Kong-based chain in the United States outside of a Chinatown seemed risky, but betting on a youthful audience instead of a familiar one has paid off. After a remodel this spring, the original location is still thriving eleven years later. Meanwhile, a Williamsburg branch was added in 2008 while a spot on Mott Street didn't survive.
The main attraction are the bubble teas, often picked up to go. One thing to realize is that the term "tea" is used loosely. Yes, there are many offerings that are brown, transparent, and clearly originate from steeped leaves, but a good number are colorful and flavored—juicier and more milkshake-y than an ordinary glass of iced tea.
The lavender taro milk tea is creamy and much sweeter than the purple-veined tuber it gets its name from. The green tea spiked with green apple is refreshing, and, like a Taiwanese Snapple, can also be ordered with lemon, mango, passion fruit or peach.
The gelatinous, brown orbs formed out of sweet potato and tapioca starch are satisfyingly chewy and fun to suck up in the fat straw. No worries if you don't like chunks in your drinks; just order blob-free versions.
Saint's Alp isn't really a dining destination, though they serve noodle soups and Taiwanese favorites like pork chops on rice. I treat the choices more like tapas... or rather, "tapas." You certainly won't find sweetened condensed milk on fat, fluffy slices of buttered square toast in Spain. Simple and gooey, this wedge of bread is like a do-it-yourself after school cinnamon and sugar snack. At $1.65, it can be had for even a tiny allowance.
Chicken wings ($3.65) are straightforward and coated in a honey-soy glaze. They're also available with tea eggs.
Shrimp balls ($3.65) are also exactly as described: springy orbs of fried shrimp mousse. They felt a little naked without a dipping sauce.
Similar to turnip cakes frequently served for dim sum, these fried radish cubes ($3.25) dusted with pepper, with sweet soy sauce on the side, are crispy with an irresistibly silky interior. They're also surprisingly heavy for their size—share a plate unless you're very hungry.
Saint's Alp Teahouse
39 Third Avenue, New York NY 10003 (map) 212-598-1890
164 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11211 (map)