Labobatory’s “50 Shades of Earl Grey” Boba Milk Tea

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If you’re the kind of person who enjoys clever drink names, then you’ll love Labobatory, my favorite boba tea shop in the San Gabriel Valley. The drink in the picture above is called “50 Shades of Earl Grey.” The name alone is cool. The fact that it’s actually grey makes it that much cooler.

What makes it grey? Charcoal. I asked the boba-ista what the charcoal does, thinking that it had some health benefits, and she said, “Nothing really. We just put it in there for the color.” But then she added that some people do take charcoal supplements for detoxification purposes. I could use some detoxifying, for sure.

My go-to drink from Labobatory is the Lebanese Rose Milk Tea, which remains the best rose milk tea I’ve ever had. Like rose milk tea, Earl Grey milk teas are fairly common at boba shops. But Labobatory takes common drinks and does them to perfection. The 50 Shades of Earl Grey, though not wildly different from other boba shops’ Earl Grey teas, was the best one I’ve ever had in terms of quality.

The flavor of the tea is strong but not bitter or too heavy on the bergamot. The dairy-free milk is smooth and creamy. (They use non-dairy creamer unless you specify otherwise; they also offer regular milk, soy milk, and almond milk.) The drink comes out the perfect temperature and has just the right amount of ice.

But here’s what I like best: You can adjust the sweetness level, even to 0%. At many boba shops, if you ask them to make an Earl Grey milk tea with no sugar, they can’t do it. Why? Because they use a pre-sweetened Earl Grey powder or syrup, rather than making the drink from freshly brewed Earl Grey tea. Since I don’t like my tea sweetened, I will go out of my way to find boba shops like Labobatory.

And did I mention that my drink was grey??? This is the type of beverage that will get you a lot of views on Instagram, if that’s the kind of thing you’re into.

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I declined getting the boba pearls in my 50 Shades of Earl Grey because I’m trying to cut down on carbs. But even without those chewy little bombs, this drink was top-notch. I just hope that the owner of Labobatory opens a shop in L.A. again — the now-defunct Boba 7, which offered alcoholic boba drinks, was a true gem.

LABOBATORY, 819 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, CA 91776 

Oat Milk Latte at Balconi Coffee Company

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Years ago I walked into Balconi Coffee Company in West L.A. and asked if they had any non-dairy milk. By this point, almost every coffee shop offered soy, almond, or coconut milk. But Balconi didn’t have anything but cow’s milk. I walked out and never went back.

Until last week, when a friend of mine urged me to try Oatly Oat Milk and I found out, using Oatly’s “computerized oat milk locator,” that Balconi is one of its purveyors. I’d heard that Balconi’s coffee was the bomb, and my friend told me that Oatly was so good that “people drink it because they want to, not because they have to.” So naturally, I had to check it out.

Indeed, Balconi now offers one kind of non-dairy milk: Oatly. I ordered an oat milk latte and waited while the baristas painstakingly prepared coffee drinks for the patrons ahead of me. This place is not about getting your coffee fast. It’s for people who like to chat with their baristas about what they did over their Christmas vacation and how many miles they’ve been biking. The regulars here clearly love being regulars. And they love to watch their coffee made with seriousness.

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Balconi specializes in the Siphon Method — see the science lab-like photo above — and they serve a rotating selection of brewed-to-order coffee. After they grind your coffee, they even let you sniff it before they start brewing it. This is part of the ritual.

But I didn’t get any of this treatment because I ordered a latte rather than one of their fancy roasts. I waited for at least ten minutes for my coffee, which is a long time for a former New Yorker like me, but the ambience at Balconi is cozy enough that I didn’t really mind.

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They have barstools covered in fake grass, and there’s interesting music playing at an innocuous volume, so you can still hear yourself think. The vibe there is pleasant. Unlike at chain coffee shops, you don’t feel like half the customers are having business meetings or working on their screenplays. There are paintings by local artists on the walls and cute little touches like tiny seagrass baskets filled with sugar packets.

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As for the oat milk latte, it was pretty good. Not mind-blowing but good. The oat milk gave it a slightly earthy flavor that reminded me of oatmeal. Would I prefer oat milk to almond milk? No. I find almond milk to be a little smoother, and I prefer the nutty undertone to the oaty one. Although I enjoyed my latte from Balconi, it didn’t top the almond milk latte at Peet’s. Peet’s espresso has a bolder flavor that I prefer.

But if you’re allergic to nuts and you don’t like the taste of coconuts, oat milk could be a godsend.

When I asked the barista about Oatly, he told me they were the best oat milk company, but they have a “supply chain problem.” So at the moment, Oatly can be hard to find. You can look up locations where it’s being sold using their locator. Try it and let me know what you think!

BALCONI COFFEE COMPANY, 11301 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 124, Los Angeles, CA 90064

Daiya Deluxe Cheezy Mac

If you don’t eat dairy, you’ve probably tried at least one Daiya product, and it has either made you a fan or turned you off forever. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Daiya’s non-dairy products are hit or miss.¬†Here’s a summary so far (click on each to read my reviews):

GOOD DAIYA
Cheddar Style Slices
Mozzarella Cutting Board Shreds
New York Cheezecake

BAD DAIYA
Cream Cheeze Style Spread
Pumpkin Spice Cheezecake
Creamy Caesar Salad Dressing

And now I’m sorry to say I’ve got to add one more to the “bad” list: Daiya Cheddar Style Deluxe Cheezy Mac.

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I was never a huge mac and cheese lover to begin with, but my husband is more obsessed with it than your average eight-year-old. I thought it would be fun to whip up a batch of dairy-free mac and cheese and see how it compared to his beloved Kraft.

Indeed, Daiya’s cheeze sauce is as bright orange as the classic. After cooking the macaroni, you squeeze the contents of a foil pouch onto the pasta and this is what it looks like. Not appetizing. But then, neither is Kraft’s.

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To add a little texture and flavor, I sprinkled some Italian bread crumbs on top and broiled it for five minutes. The result was a dish that looked surprisingly edible.

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But even the salty crunchiness of the bread crumbs didn’t mask the weirdness of the fake cheese. There is a distinctly unnatural flavor to this stuff that isn’t like the unnatural-but-kind-of-awesome flavor of Velveeta or Cheez Whiz. It tastes industrial.

I don’t know how Daiya can make such a good sliced cheese and such a bad mac and cheese. You’d think they’d use essentially the same recipe. But maybe they have to add strange things to the Cheezy Mac stuff to get it to stay in that gooey, glue-like form.

If you’re curious, try it at your own risk. But consider yourself warned.

Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy Coconut Seven Layer Bar

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This pint of Ben & Jerry’s Coconut Seven Layer Bar was one of the five-pack of Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy ice creams that I received as a birthday gift. It’s got a coconut-flavored base with fudge chunks, walnuts, and swirls of graham cracker and caramel. Now, I wouldn’t have bought this for myself as I don’t like the taste of coconut (with the exception of pina coladas), but since it was part of the gift, of course I had to try it.

The verdict: Everything’s great about it except that it tastes like coconut! All of the stuff embedded in this ice cream is good — even the walnuts, which I’m usually not a huge fan of, were in such small quantities as to be innocuous. If all of that stuff were in, say, a vanilla base, I would give this an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

But I just don’t like coconut, despite my penchant for most tropical things.

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This also made me wonder why they would bother making a coconut-flavored ice cream with almond milk. I mean, all of Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy ice creams are made with almond milk, but for a coconut-flavored ice cream, why not use coconut milk?

Coconut Bliss makes non-dairy ice creams using a coconut cream base, and they’re exceptionally smooth and creamy. If you’re into coconut ice cream, I’d recommend this brand. (Vanilla Island and Naked Coconut are two of their most coconutty flavors.)

But of course, nobody does chunks of stuff in your ice cream like Ben & Jerry’s. They are the masters of chunks. So if that’s your thing and you love the taste of coconut, their Coconut Seven Layer Bar will probably delight you.

Let’s hope Ben & Jerry’s rolls out more non-dairy flavors soon. In fact, they’re taking suggestions on their website for non-dairy flavors, so put in your requests here!