Sunday, April 21, 2024

A couple walks Saturday by Leisure Station, a new business touting its tea in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. (Photos: Marc Levy)

I am a booster of Cambridge, and as a rule want Cambridge businesses to succeed — especially in Kendall Square, which needs more vibrant retail. But on the basis of its specialty — tea — I’m not sure why Leisure Station should thrive.

That may sound harsh; I mean it at face value.

It’s especially awkward to criticize the just-opened business because it’s the creation of Ken Huang, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been a Cambridge resident and who clearly has his heart in the right place (again, that “right place” is 625 W. Kendall St., Kendall Square). But a visit to the shop on a sleepy Saturday, after torrential rains shut down much of the area, produced an alarmingly expensive product with an especially, uh, subtle taste.

And by subtle, I mean “mostly flavorless.”

The tested drink was a small (or “regular”) almond milk tea with boba, or tapioca bubbles — my staple when I go someplace offering milk tea or bubble tea.

Leisure Station’s was no worse than what I’ve had in Allston’s Super 88 food court or in Porter or Harvard squares, but it was far worse than the cold, refreshing, sweet almond milk tea dispensed at the Juice Bar at 40-44 Harrison Ave. in Boston’s Chinatown. And despite my affection for the Juice Bar, where I’ve been a fan since it was one of the stands in the Chinatown Eatery food court, now condos, upstairs at Harrison and Beach streets, it pains me significantly when Cambridge can’t stand up to Boston.

But here’s something Leisure Station’s almond milk tea was: Really, really expensive.

And here’s something Leisure Station charges for, unlike every other boba tea place I know: boba.

Since boba is more or less Leisure Station’s reason for being, this is a little weird. Certainly the place sells other items, such as interesting-looking savory rolls, and also has jellies and puddings to put in tea, but boba tea is more or less its reason for being. From the business’ press release:

In addition to the fantastic Boba Tea, daily lunch selections and more, they even have free Wi-Fi, a karaoke machine, texting and online ordering and curbside pickup! … Pearl milk tea, which is also known as boba tea, bubble tea and tapioca milk tea, is simply a delicious sweetened milk tea drink. The fun twist of the drink comes in the “pearl” or tapioca balls that the drinker simultaneously slurps up through an oversize straw with the freshly brewed tea of their choice, which is always fresh to order. First-time drinkers may initially find the concept of chewing and drinking at the same a bit unusual. Nevertheless, after a few sips, it’s hard to resist these tasty, soft, chewy treats combined with our delicious blended milk tea beverages. The bubble tea experience is truly a blissful union of snacking and sipping at the same time! [Emphasis mine.]

Note that the press release doesn’t say “Additional charge.”

This press release invited me to a tasting in June, but I couldn’t attend. I would like to think the same concerns would have arisen, but maybe this way is best — to experience the place on an average day as a paying customer.

The Juice Bar, on Harrison Avenue in Boston’s Chinatown, has a large menu that includes some superior drinks for lower prices.

My small tea was $3.80; the boba was an additional 50 cents; and the taxes brought it to $4.60. A large drink of what I ordered would have been $5.24, a worker said Monday.

The same drink at Harvard Square’s Boston Tea Stop costs a total $3.75, a savings of 85 cents even with the 7 percent tax. A large would have totaled $4.82. Extra boba or jelly is 35 cents, but a regular dose of boba is free.

The same drink at Tapicha, part of the Shops at Porter Square in Lesley University’s old Sears building, costs $3.20, including the tax, for a savings of $1.40 over Leisure Station. A large almond milk tea at Tapicha would total $3.70.

The Juice Bar in Chinatown has only one size of drink. An almond milk tea there is $3.50 with boba and tax included — a $1.10 savings over Leisure Station and far more flavorful.

A review in the Cambridge Chronicle noted that Leisure Station makes its boba fresh every two hours, but there was nothing about the boba sampled Saturday that distinguished it from the flavorful, chewy boba at the Juice Bar bought Monday.

In addition, the Kendall Square business’ “high-tech” approach is mentioned in its press release, Chronicle review and a review at A Boston Food Diary — both of which, I must say, were extremely positive; I’m so much an outlier that I might as well be that guy who panned “Toy Story 3” — but a high-tech tea is pointless if the tea isn’t good. The focus on technology, in fact, reminded me of nothing so much as a passage from Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” when hero Arthur Dent encounters a ridiculously high-tech machine that promises to make any drink he wants:

The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic examination of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.