By Sharon Adarlo
One day in September, a woman dressed in a nondescript outfit walked out of Yaya Tea in Downtown Newark carrying two icy cold tumblers of bubble milk tea and seaweed-wrapped rice balls. With her college-aged daughter’s help, she unwrapped the plastic film around the rice ball and then proceeded to eat everything inside but the seaweed. Cooked rice bits were all over her chin and fingers. Her daughter looking perplexed, urged in an embarrassed voice, “Mom, that’s not how you eat it.”
Don’t be this woman. When you order a rice ball from Yaya Tea, think of the rice ball as a kind of sandwich or burrito. When you unwrap the plastic film, press down any seaweed not already wrapped around the rice ball and eat it with both hands. The rice balls are shaped like triangles so you can start chomping at either the top or at the side corners. Yaya Tea has an extensive menu of rice ball flavors, so you have plenty of attempts to practice – from rice balls stuffed inside with crispy shrimp tempura, cooked salmon, Spam, spicy crawfish, sour plum to vegan options such as soy ginger chicken and seaweed with radish. My personal favorite is the vegan citrus sparerib, but all the rice balls are very good and made to order.
Yaya Tea (opened last fall) is a welcome addition to Newark, which is starved of decent Asian cuisine that isn’t fried Americanized Chinese food. It joins a very nascent Asian food scene that includes the first New Jersey outpost of Go! Go! Curry on William Street, BulgogiZip on Broad Street, and a handful of others. Like those aforementioned places, Yaya is a fast casual spot that appeals to college students who enjoy bubble tea and reasonably priced snacks and entrees, which Yaya has in abundance.
Yaya has an extensive tea selection – refreshing fruit teas to milk teas in flavors such as taro and matcha. You can also request customizations and add ins, which include tapioca boba (of course) and others like lychee jelly and mango stars. I don’t really like bubbles or anything in my teas, so I just order a large tumbler of cold black milk tea, less ice and the least amount of sugar.
Aside from the rice balls, Yaya has Japanese and Taiwanese-inspired entrees and appetizers like yakisoba, takoyaki, vegetarian eggrolls, fried gyoza and more. Recently, I had their vegetable yakisoba, a generous and filling portion of stir-fried noodles and vegetables with a hint of five spice powder. Their takoyaki is always delicious. It comes dressed with de riguer sweet takoyaki sauce, streaks of Kewpie mayonnaise, green seaweed flecks, and shavings of dried bonito. It’s very good and quite rich.
Yaya also has a rack of Asian snacks, including imported Japanese Kit Kats – a huge plus in my book.
250 Central Avenue
Newark, NJ 07103