boba, part 3.

My parents immigrated to Los Angeles from China. I was born and raised between L.A.’s Chinatown and San Gabriel Valley. It was all I knew and upon finishing high school, I moved to attend UC San Diego for new experiences and challenges. As a freshman, I got into a habit of telling people I was from L.A.. It was a habit that would take many years to break, a habit that reflected my longing for my hometown's food, family, and friends (as mentioned in my last post). But I didn’t realize how strange this habit was until a job as a local summer camp counsellor, where I mentioned that I was from L.A. to a lot of confused looks. I had a 20 minute commute from UCSD, not a 2 hour drive from L.A.

There's an old adage, "home is where the heart is". As I continued to live in San Diego, I learned more about the city and the local culture in due to the various tutoring and teaching jobs at schools around SD and my personal desire to explore local foods. It pushed me to visit the many different neighborhoods around the city, all of which tend to be distinct and have their own characteristics. Slowly, I learned about the city’s landmarks and the broader food culture. And slowly, it would start to feel like home. I learned, for example, that Balboa Park is no regular park; it’s a thousand acres of art, culture, and nature. I noticed that in recent years, San Diego has been swept by a wave of craft coffee; much to my delight, as both a tea and coffee lover. And for much longer than I’ve been here, San Diego has been the capital of craft beer; it’s home to a long list of bars and breweries with as much flavour and personality as the drinks and patrons they serve.

But as much as San Diego had to offer, it was easy to be caught in the bubble of the university neighborhood. Almost everything I needed I could find in the businesses and communities in and around campus. University was challenging, and even overwhelming at times. I’d find myself gravitating towards quiet and subtle spaces to cope. On campus, I had a patchwork of favorite places that included a basement-computer-lab and a treehouse themed study lounge. But the one important reason I had to leave the university town center was to take regular trips to visit Convoy District [1]. Convoy is a hodgepodge of car dealerships, office parks, and Asian eateries and supermarkets. It satisfied my basic needs for Asian comfort food or specific groceries I couldn’t get otherwise. And equally important, it allowed me access to boba options that weren’t limited to the Tapioca Express in La Jolla.

Looking back, I have a lot of love for TapEx. In a way very similar to the Quickly’s of my hometown, TapEx was a place that I could rely on to get my fix for a thai tea slush or a popcorn chicken. And because of its proximity, it was another favorite place I would be drawn to. It amuses me to know that the La Jolla locations are still there, serving the college community to this day, and I hope they are there for many years to come. But TapEx was never really quite the right match; but many places were never quite right. I’ve had fond memories at bars and breweries, but they tend to leave me more tired out than refreshed or relaxed. I love coffee almost as much as tea, but over time coffee became synonymous with “get work done” when sometimes what I really needed was to relax.

I usually tell people that I’m from San Diego, but grew up in L.A. Camellia is a project born from that statement, a project to fill the need I always had for good boba in a great space. I built the place I had always looked for, the boba place that could be for me to work but also just to hang out with friends. It’s also a way of bringing a little bit of my hometown to my new home; inspired by a love for traditional SGV boba milk tea, but made for boba fans of San Diego. To do this, we made sure the actual boba itself was delicious. Over half the store’s tables, decor, and art are hand-built, designed, and put up by us or friends. And we took the ingredients seriously. We decided to trade traditional non-dairy creamer powder for real dairy and plant milks, and trade fructose for cane-sugar simple syrup. We named our line of fruit teas “Tea Frescas” and placed them into barrels as a nod to Agua Frescas and only use real fruits and loose leaf tea. In a few ways, Convoy District has made a fitting home for Camellia. The San Diego Tribune described Convoy as being lead by a new generation of Asian entrepreneurs [2], redefining the neighborhood with modern interpretations on classic Asian cuisines. At Camellia, we are definitely a nontraditional boba shop, one that’s been compared to many other boba places (and guys). But my main hope is that you come by, stay a while, and find a bit of home.

-Ricky Lau


1 Savor San Diego, Convoy District (2016). Retrieved from

2 2nd generation of Asian entrepreneurs poised to take Convoy District into future (January, 2019) 
Retrieved from

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