Nataraj Das, a 31-year-old audiovisual engineer who lives in San Jose, California, creates detailed spreadsheets of every boba drink he’s bought in the last two years. He owns a custom “Bobaddy’’ license plate as well as a three-foot-tall boba plushie that rides shotgun in his car. His Google Maps app is filled with hundreds of pins of boba shops he has tried and those he notes as wanting to try; he started his meticulous record-keeping after friends began asking him how much boba he drank a year (an estimated 200 cups, on average).
Das has kept thorough spreadsheets of his boba purchases since 2020 and releases his annual record keeping online at the end of each year. His spreadsheets break down the total number of boba drinks he’s had, total cost after rewards and coupons, and the store, city, topping, and tea type he orders. While other millennials spend hours on Instagram bookmarking the hottest brunches in town, Das is busy organizing his Google pins and spreadsheets on the newest boba shops near him. His friends tease him for his obsession, but to Das, boba is a drink that has kept him sated for close to 15 years, beginning in high school.
Boba shops, a primary cultural gathering spot for Asian American youth in the early 2000s, continue to be the destination of choice for Das to connect with friends now that he has more disposable income than he did as a high schooler. (From the onset of the pandemic until now, he has spent a total of $948.90 and drank a total of 203 boba drinks.) Das wore his UC Boba Department of Milk Tea Studies shirt along with his boba milk tea AirPods while speaking with Eater LA about his boba fixation, boba industry trends, and future predictions as a seasoned boba superfan.
Eater: When did you start drinking boba, and how did this extensive spreadsheet come about?
Nataraj Das: I’ve been drinking boba since I was in high school. I went to Mills High School in Millbrae, where there was a large Asian community, so it was a regular thing to go to a boba shop and play cards there after school. I remember paying 99 cents a cup for boba at Quickly at that time. After being asked 15 or 20 times by friends on how many drinks I had a year and how much I spent, I finally decided to keep track of everything, and that’s how the idea was born.
Has your taste changed since high school?
Back in high school, we could only afford 99-cent Quickly boba. It was okay, but it did the job. Now, I order $5, $6 boba, and I don’t think twice about it. I definitely go to bougier places now — I’m a fan of Yifang. There are even some places that are $8-plus per drink, but that is a bit too crazy to me.
What were the results after you started keeping track?
In 2020, I had 137 cups of boba and spent a total of $676.79. In 2021, I had 203 cups and spent $948.90 after taking into consideration coupons and any discounts I accrued at certain shops. I don’t have a specific boba fund or do any special budgeting for my boba obsession since in the grand scheme of things, it’s cheaper than alcohol, clubbing, or a Starbucks-a-day habit.
Have you been drinking it even more during COVID times?
During [the beginning of] COVID, there were so many boba shops that allowed online ordering and contactless pickup outside, so it made it so easy to swing by and pick up the drinks and to go straight home, especially when everything was closed. You would have thought that it would have been very easy to ramp up my boba ordering during that time, but boba is more than just a drink or a number of drinks I need to buy. It’s an opportunity to spend time with friends and bond. I only got boba by myself one time last year.
What’s your favorite drink?
It’s really hard to choose one because I go to different boba shops in the South Bay for whatever drink I’m in the mood for. I tend to like boba that isn’t too sweet, so having less sweetness and good tea flavor is important for me. I typically get 25 percent sugar. For toppings, I don’t get boba every single time. Sometimes I rotate between lychee, grass jelly, aloe, or other toppings. Pekoe is very popular here. It’s a San Jose mom-and-pop, but it’s kind of like a nightclub. Tea Fermata in Los Gatos is a good one. In Cupertino, there’s Lucky Tea; it’s good for a chain. Mr. Sun is great for its homemade boba, and Urban Ritual has a creme brulee pudding milk tea.
How do your friends and family feel about your love for boba?
My friends egg me on and are always hitting me up for recommendations. If any friend has a new boba recommendation or question, they hit me up. My Google Maps has 300 pin drops all dedicated to boba. I bookmark all my favorite places and pin them.
What does boba mean to you?
For me, boba is a very social thing. It’s like my go-to hangout with friends, so depending on what friend I’m hanging out with, we’ll meet up at a boba shop or go for adventures to try new spots that open. I have some friends who will drive to San Francisco just to try new shops. We want to find out if new spots are just pretty on Instagram and are trying to attract the influencer crowd, or if they are actually good. Boba isn’t just a drink for me. Back in high school, it was somewhere to go, but it’s now a way to bond and maintain friendships. I know many people that had a hard time connecting with others during the [earlier days of the] pandemic.
Do you have a boba goal in mind?
My friends want me to get 365, but I say no because then it would be like a chore and I’d feel like I had to get one each day. It’s more of a fun thing for me and I just like drinking boba and seeing the metrics of what I do. Also, being able to be the go-to guy to help my friends find boba is always fun.
What has been your craziest boba adventure?
I was in Taiwan in January 2020. We weren’t even planning on going anywhere near the city of Tainan, but I convinced my friends to take the bullet train with me to try boba from Chun Shui Tang, the teahouse that claims to be the originator of boba milk tea. That was when I had a boba every day for the first two weeks of my Taiwan trip. My friends were so supportive. Even though there were plenty of Chun Shui Tang stores closer to where we were staying, they went with me to Tainan, a whole different city, to pay proper respects to the original location. To actually see the birthplace of boba and have a drink from the original store was an amazing experience.
What was your reaction to having the original?
It almost felt like a pilgrimage. It was super cool. My friends were totally excited to go with me. I also made a trip to try Xing Fu Tang, aka the Hermès of boba, known for its signature drinks like a gold foil-topped boba in Rowland Heights, California. It was the first Xing Fu Tang to open in the state. I was on my way to Palm Springs, and I knew I had to make a detour to try them.
It seems like despite most restaurants taking a huge hit during the pandemic, boba shops have continued opening and thriving. What is your take on that?
It’s normal to see plazas with five boba shops in them. Every single plaza around me seems to have at least one boba shop, and overall, overhead is cheap. With all overhead it probably costs less than 50 cents a cup to make, so the more you sell — it’s a high-volume, low-margin business. During [the earlier days of] COVID, when in-person restaurants suffered the most, I think boba didn’t suffer as much because it was always easy to have it as a to-go option.
Do you see any trends in boba?
It seems like a lot of shops have their own theme. I don’t want to use the word “gimmick” because it has a bad connotation, but the great places really stand out and the so-so places just come and go. Probably, the biggest trend is that everything is more expensive.
Are there any changes you hope the boba industry will make?
I hope more boba shops will focus on using higher-quality ingredients and giving the option to customize your drinks. Growing up, there wasn’t as much customization, and lately, there are so many more options (Editor’s note: see edible gold and Yakult foam). I also hope there will be more complex tea flavors added.
Any last thoughts you’d like to share?
Recently, six friends and I did a blind boba taste test so we each bought six boba drinks. We had a total of 36 drinks, and we marked Dixie cups and divided it all out. We basically took shots of boba back to back to compare and rate them. I think we realized a lot of them are similar. There’s a lot of bad boba, and there’s a lot of decent ones, and then a few that are really good. But ultimately, it’s hard to judge what is good and what is bad because it’s so personal. That’s why I never made a ranking of my favorite boba.
People ask, “You spend how much on boba?” And I’m like, it’s less than what you spend at Starbucks every day. If you go to a nice restaurant or a club, boba is much cheaper than all those things. So, yes, it’s almost $1,000 a year, but in reality, it’s really not that much if you think about it that way.
This interview has been edited for clarity.