Suck it up: Bubble tea stirs the town

Ever wondered just who's snooping about the local food scene? Why, it's Christina Ball, who bursts out of the shadows this week. Until now, Dish had been running without a byline, but her identity is now revealed. After all, why keep talent a secret?–editor

 You can't get far in Taiwan or Hong Kong or San Francisco without bumping into a bubble teashop. There's one on just about every corner.

Well, thanks to the new oriental restaurant, First Wok, owned and operated by the Chu family, bubble tea is now also available right here in Charlottesville on The Corner. First Wok opened on Monday, August 18, just next door to the Subway on 14th Street­ and just in time to quench the thirst of returning UVA students.

For the uninitiated (which included, until very recently, Dish herself), bubble tea­ also called pearl tea– is made by adding soft, chewy black tapioca pearls to shaken, generally fruit-flavored iced tea. Not ancient by any means, bubble tea was a two-part invention originating in Taiwan.

Step one: shaken and sweetened, not stirred. To satisfy the sweet tooth of her young clientele, an owner of a tea stand near an elementary school decided to start adding fruit flavoring to her iced teas. The shaking process, necessary to mix the powdered flavoring with the tea, produced bubbles, and so the name "bubble tea" was born.

Step two: a straw of pearls. In 1983, Liu Han-Chieh introduced Taiwan to the fad of pouring cold, shaken "bubble tea" into a clear plastic cup containing a few spoonfuls of pea-sized tapioca pearls. The bubbles float on the top of the drink, and the pearls rest on the bottom– that is, until they are sucked up through the straw along with the tea.

"A lot of people trying bubble tea for the first time are surprised when they taste that first tapioca ball," says Julia Chu, 22, who is directly responsible for adding bubble tea to First Wok's eat-in/take-out menu.

Julia's dream is to open a teashop of her own some day, but for now she's happy shaking up flavors like lychee, mango, cantaloupe, and taro from behind the bar of her family's new plum-colored dining room.

Open wide: Big Mouth Pizza brings gourmet pies to West Main

 What are you in the mood for tonight– sushi, or gourmet pizza? In a few months, you'll be able to satisfy either craving­ or both­ in the same West Main Street building.

If you've driven past the recently renovated brick building across from the Hampton Inn lately, you may have noticed the red and white "Big Mouth Pizza" banner hanging in the space next to Asian Express.

Many seem to know him, but for those who don't, meet Frank Cramblitt, the 32-year-old owner of Big Mouth Pizza. Cramblitt, a UVA grad who's worked in all aspects of the restaurant biz here for the past 10 years, plans to open his high-end eat-in/take out restaurant and bar by mid October.

What's unique about Big Mouth pizza, besides the name?

"Our crust. It's phenomenal. You've gotta taste it," Cramblitt says of his family's secret recipe. "It's thick, but also incredibly light and airy." Because this specific sort of dough requires fermenting and the specialized equipment of a baker, Gerry Newman of Albemarle Baking Company will make– and par-bake ("partial-bake")– all of the dough for Big Mouth, merging his expertise, equipment, and oven space with Cramblitt's recipe.

"I'm very excited to work with Frank," Newman told Dish. "His flavors are really very good."

When the dough reaches Big Mouth-­ in Bobolo form-­ it will be ready for white or red sauces and toppings like fresh crabmeat, roasted duck, portabello mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes. Big Mouth's menu will also feature salads and pasta, as well as a full bar.

Cramblitt says he's going for an upbeat atmosphere, which, together with the steadily buzzing Asian Express, will continue to spice up this once sleepy, hungry block.