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This Southeast Portland Bar Has Started Serving Boozy Boba To-Go

Buddy’s Lounge had to spend much of its second year closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. When the state legalized takeout cocktails, owners Brian Jiang and Neil Chan figured out a way to bring something new to the local beverage scene.

A cup with tapioca pearls and caramel swirls, with a label that reads “Buddy’s Lounge”
Whiskey milk tea from Buddy’s Lounge
Buddy’s Lounge / Official
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

After 10 years in finance, Brian Jiang jumped ship and dove into the world of beverage.

Jiang, a Portland State University alum, remembered how difficult it was to find good boba on campus when he was a student. So, he decided to learn what he could about bubble tea, eventually traveling to Taiwan to learn how to make his own. He went on to open a boba shop and, two years ago, partnered with industry vet and friend Neil Chan to open a bar near SE 82nd, Buddy’s Lounge.

Portland’s bar industry, however, was about to hit an iceberg. Coronavirus slowed business considerably and, when bars and restaurants first shut down, Jiang and Chan didn’t have many options. Buddy’s was a bar, plain and simple, and figuring out a takeout menu didn’t make a ton of sense. Instead, it temporarily shuttered, and tentatively reopened over the summer when onsite dining was once again permitted. But without any real space for outdoor dining, Buddy’s shut down again in the fall.

The legalization of to-go cocktails, however, offered Chan and Jiang an opportunity: Jiang already had a handle on boba recipes, and the sealing machines frequently used by bubble tea shops made obvious sense for takeout drinks. So Jiang decided to combine his knowledge of boba with Chan’s bar background, finally bring boozy boba to Portland. Now, the bar is selling Assam black tea spiked with whiskey and Thai tea with rum and brown sugar boba — all sealed for takeout.

Alcoholic boba drinks have existed in several U.S. cities for years. Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley bars have sold matcha drinks spiked with tequila and green tea blended with Heineken since at least 2015, likely earlier; boba bars have opened up in New York and Houston, and pop-up Daijoubu sold boozy boba cocktail kits in Austin to benefit Asian-Americans Advancing Justice. However, Portland’s history with alcoholic boba is basically non-existent.

When Jiang started figuring out recipes, it wasn’t exactly intuitive. “We had to find a way to keep it cold without the ice melting,” he says. “We kept trying and failing, but now we’re able to find a way to not lose the bubble tea taste, but also add the taste of the liquor and keep it cold.” In general, the bar uses a foundation of an existing drink, either in the realm of tea or cocktails: A greyhound, for instance, gets the aromatic quality of a jasmine green tea, with rainbow jellies for color and flair. A friend recommended doing a version of an Irish Car Bomb, combining Guinness and whiskey with black tea and brown sugar boba. He calls it a Tea Bomb. Meanwhile, Jiang’s favorite is a simple milk tea, given a kick via a shot of whiskey.

To accommodate the food requirement, the bar is selling $3 nachos to go with the drinks, which come with the typical wide straws to puncture the plastic seal. Soon, Jiang and Chan plan to sell the drinks via Postmates, for delivery, as well; for now, they’re available for takeout at 8220 SE Harrison Street. See the full menu here.

Buddy’s Lounge [Official]
Buddy’s Lounge [Instagram]
Oregon Restaurants and Bars Can Now Sell Cocktails To-Go [EPDX]
16 Portland Bars and Restaurants Now Offering Cocktails To-Go [EPDX]