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Bubblicious

Walking into the new Teaberry shop on Fargo's Broadway is like taking a sip of zen. The walls are painted a soothing shade of celery. Modern track lighting glows over tasteful Asian artwork. Overstuffed sofas invite customers to sit a spell, read...

Gaolee and Trung Nguyen

Walking into the new Teaberry shop on Fargo's Broadway is like taking a sip of zen. The walls are painted a soothing shade of celery. Modern track lighting glows over tasteful Asian artwork. Overstuffed sofas invite customers to sit a spell, read the paper and take in the hypnotic hip-hop skins gyrating on the big-screen plasma TV.

You feel your blood pressure drop a few points. And then a crunching whirr - like someone trying to puree marbles in a blender - splits the air.

Do not be alarmed. It's just the sound of shop owner Trung Nguyen preparing Teaberry's signature drink: bubble tea (aka boba tea). A Taiwanese import, bubble tea is a refreshing smoothie made from powdered flavoring, nondairy creamer, crushed ice, raw sugar and - the magic ingredient - large "pearls" of sweetened tapioca. (The drink's name is something of a misnomer, as customers can order the beverage without any tea at all.)

Teaberry also sells sandwiches, a smooth French-press Vietnamese coffee and tall, cool specialty drinks.

"I think Fargo needs a place like ours," says the personable and articulate Nguyen, who co-owns the business with his wife, Gaolee, as well as friends Brian Nguyen and Henry Loueng.

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A native of Vietnam, Nguyen actually graduated from medical school at the University of Minnesota, where he planned to specialize in trauma surgery. While he loved the idea of saving lives, he didn't like the bureaucracy and problems surrounding modern health care. As a student, he and several friends had invested in bubble tea shops around the Twin Cities. And so he decided to make an unlikely jump; from surgeon to purveyor of bubble tea in Fargo.

Bubble tea shops first came to North America in the 1990s. Popularized by major chains such as Boba Bee, the drink is especially popular in urban areas like Los Angeles, which have large Asian populations.

But the drink is still fairly new to Fargo residents. On a recent day, Nguyen cheerfully explained his exotic menu to a 40-something man in jeans and a red polo shirt. By the smoothness of his sales pitch, you could tell Nguyen has educated plenty of bubble tea newbies since his shop opened three weeks ago. As the man sampled his first tea, Nguyen looked on with keen interest. "Do you like it?" he asked the man.

Maybe the customer was being Midwestern-polite, but he assured Nguyen that he did indeed like it. He also said he'd be in the next day for a French press coffee.

After a couple of bandana-wearing hipsters walked in, Nguyen automatically asked: "Have you had bubble tea before?" The woman informed him she's had the drink "many times - in Manhattan," then ordered the smoothie in green tea flavor.

Her companion hadn't sampled the tea before, so Nguyen made a recommendation. "I think you'd like the Blue Hawaii," he says. "If you don't, it's on me."

Nguyen believes people like the tea because it's refreshing, not cloyingly sweet and relatively low calorie (110 to 130 calories). It comes in 20 flavors, ranging from almond to avocado to passion fruit. Customers can order the drink with or without the tapioca pearls.

That might be a good thing. Although I found bubble tea's pure flavors and mild sweetness to be extremely refreshing, I was a little freaked out by the tapioca. (Then again, I have "texture issues," and can barely choke down a Gummi Bear.) The dark, slippery pearls line the bottom of the glass until you sip from the oversized straw. Then they shoot up the straw, giving you a mouthful of icy drink and gelatinous, squeaky, slightly sweet tapioca. (If I'm going to eat food that squeaks when you bite into it, I'd prefer it be a cheese curd.)

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I actually preferred the second bubble tea add-in, known as "jelly" - bright, sweet, fruit-flavored cubes with the texture of very firm Jell-O.

Whether they're tapioca-philes or not, customers will find plenty to like about Teaberry's serene atmosphere, free Wi-Fi and attentive customer service. They also can order one of the other exotic specialty drinks, such as the White Gourd, Pink Guava or Green Grass Jelly. I tried the White Gourd, which looked gorgeous served in a tall, slender glass and garnished with strawberries and an orange slice. It is fragrant, pleasantly sweet and tastes like a mixture between pumpkin and graham crackers.

Nguyen says customers of all ages have frequented Teaberry, and the shop is becoming a popular evening hang-out for the under-21 crowd. He hopes to expand on that customer base with open mic nights, deejays and video game competitions.

"I have fairly limited knowledge in business, but I pick things up fairly quickly," he says. "I love the idea of building a business from scratch."

If you go

- What: Teaberry, a shop specializing in bubble tea, specialty drinks, French-press Vietnamese coffee and sandwiches.

- Hours: 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday

- Where: 119 Broadway, Fargo

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525

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