By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Aug 16, 2023 at 11:02 AM

Whether you’re lured by the promise of chewy boba pearls or the crackley crunch of a great fried chicken wing, you’ll find a piece of happiness at TsaoCaa (pronounced "tao-tah"), 2224 N. Farwell Ave. That’s in the former Pita Pit space, just steps away from the Oriental Theater.

Behind the counter service restaurant is Selina Zheng, owner of Kawa Japanese Restaurant on Silver Spring Dr., Kawa Ramen & Sushi (currently operating at Crossroads Collective) and Kawa 3rd Street at the 3rd Street Market Hall.

At first glance, the cafe appears spare; but the look is modern and chic with clean lines, calming grey walls, warm wood accents and seating at banquettes, small round tables and a few chairs.

Dining room at TsaoCaaX

There’s also a KAWS sculpture, a variation of the popular “Passing Through”, depicting a seated character with its hands (decorated with joyful painted flowers) over its eyes.

KAWS figureX

  As I begin taking photos, Zheng stops me.  “The interior isn’t done,” she says, noting that the branded wall art, signage and furniture have all been delayed. “They are on a boat somewhere between here and China,” she says, “But you should come back to see it when it’s all done.” 

For now, the most important thing to note is: guests can place their orders right at the restaurant’s counter or (if they’d prefer to avoid a long line) at a digital kiosk located at the front of the shop.

Counter at TsaoCaaX

From Taiwan to Wisconsin

TsaoCaa on Farwell is the first Wisconsin location for the Chinese chain, which was founded in 2018 with the goal of bringing a higher quality craft tea experience to market.

Ever since boba tea exploded in popularity in Taiwan in the 80s and 90s, the beverage has generally been made with milk powders and artificially flavored and colored boba. But TsaoCaa founder Eddie Zheng had a different vision. He wanted people to value tea – and boba tea – in a similar fashion to high quality coffee.

So he flipped the model by opening a tea shop that used premium loose leaf teas, fresh fruits and organic milk as the base for their drinks. TsaoCaa also went so far as to create their own tapioca pearls, which are made with sweet potato and no artificial colors or flavors.

Selina Zheng says she met TsaoCaa's founder in 2019. The two business owners were attending an event in New York where they were demonstrating how to make their specialty dishes: ramen and Korean fried chicken. A mutual admiration for the quality and consistency of each others' respective products ensued.

Impressed by the high quality of the product and the level of precision with which TsaoCaa operated, Zheng says she became very interested in opening her own TsaoCaa cafe in Milwaukee. When she came home she researched the concept even more, making countless trips back and forth between Milwaukee and the TsaoCaa locations in Chicago to try out their offerings.

“The fried chicken was just so good,” she says. “And I got so tired of driving to Chicago to get it. So I decided to start my own restaurant. It’s a dream come true for me. I believe in making good food, and I think people here need something like this, something different.”

Chicken wings and bubble teaX

About that Bubble Tea

The bubble tea at TsaoCaa begins with high quality loose leaf tea that’s been brewed fresh with attention paid to both the tea to water ratio and the brewing temperature. The cooled tea is then mixed with organic milk, fruit, yogurt, and other add-ins. The menu features over twenty variations of green and black teas including ruby black, Sakura oolong, jasmine and fruit-flavored teas.

Most of the tea offerings can even be customized with regard to both sweetness level (no sugar, 30% usual sugar, 50% usual sugar, $70% usual sugar or 100% usual sugar content) and ice level (no ice/warm, less ice or regular amount of ice).  That makes it easier to get the flavor profile that you prefer, as well as avoid excessive sugar if desired.

The drink selection at TsaoCaa is overwhelmingly large, with over 70 options from which to choose . But let me try to break it down for you.

At the most basic, guests can choose freshly brewed tea (medium, $4.95) to be enjoyed plain or with custom add-ins (nata jelly, red bean, purple rice, mashed taro, milk foam, purple potato, tapioca bubbles, popping boba, crystal boba, lime or grapefruit jelly; $0.95 each). 

There is also milk bubble tea (tea and milk), milk swirl tea (tea, milk, flavor swirled in) and classic fruit tea, all available in a variety of flavors. Summery options include fruit tea slush (fruit tea with crushed ice and boba), fruit yogurt slush (with yogurt and crystal pearl boba), fruit milk tea and fruit mojito which is a zero-proof drink featuring fruit and carbonated water that makes the perfect accompaniment to TsaoCaa's fried chicken.

Bubble Tea line-upX

Pictured above:

  • Iced lychee green tea slush with crystal pearl and milk foam ($6.50): creamy, fruity and refreshing with crystal clear tapioca pearls
  • Passionfruit and lime green tea ($6.25): refreshing, fruity with passionfruit arils for texture
  • Brown sugar milk tea with Oreo and milk foam ($6.50): very sweet, creamy, with a flavor like melted brown sugar 
  • Mango mojito ($5.95): fresh and effervescent; perfect with fried chicken  (note: this is non-alcoholic)
  • Strawberry milk green tea with strawberry boba ($5.95); creamy and fruity with bright fruity popping boba ($5.95) 

Korean Fried Chicken options

The chicken at TsaoCaa is just as good as the tea. It’s fried to order, so you should expect to wait about 15-20 minutes for your order (and probably a bit longer if the shop is busy). The result is fresh, hot chicken that's super crispy on the exterior and flavorful and juicy on the interior.  Un-sauced wings will stay crispy for hours, even as they cool, making them perfect for carry-out or even picnics.

For those who appreciate knowing a bit about how their food is made, TsaoCaa’s chicken is brined for eight hours before being dipped in proprietary batter, dredged in a blend of flours and seasonings and fried (just once) in an olive oil blend.

Fried chicken wings
Fried wings, pictured from left to right: Secret Spicy, Honey Garlic, Plain, Soy Garlic, Hot & Spicy

Guests can choose from jumbo bone-in wings (six for $14.75; 14 for $25), boneless wings (six for $13.75; 14 for $23). Combo specials include four wings and a side of fries for $12.50 (boneless) or $13.95 (bone in).

Wings come with guest’s choice of sauces. Options include soy garlic (umami-sweet), honey garlic (sweet and savory), secret spicy (sweet with some spice) or hot & spicy (sweet with moderate spice). Cheese flavor – a uniquely sweet and savory flavored dry-rub cheese powder – is also an option.  It's an offering that was made specifically for the Milwaukee location. And, frankly, it's pretty delicious.

Fried chicken sandwiches are also available, again with guest’s choice of sauce ($8.95). A sandwich combo with fries is also available for $12.

Korean fried chicken sandwichX

Please note: all wings come with sauce on the side to preserve the crispiness of the chicken. I advise ordering extra sauce if you like yours to be saucy. If you would like your chicken to be fully covered in sauce, you will want to ask them to sauce it for you. 

Hong Kong style egg waffles

Guests can also indulge in a Hong Kong specialty: freshly made waffle egglettes (AKA bubble waffles), which are available in original, matcha or cocoa flavors ($6.95). 

Bubble waffle
Matcha bubble waffle

These hand-held treats are made with a rich, egg-based batter. Much like æbleskivers, they are cooked in a special pan outfitted with a multitude of rounded cells which fill with batter, creating the appearance of bubbles protruding from the surface of the waffle.

Unlike regular waffles, which are typically soft throughout, the eggettes are crispy on the exterior and fluffy in the center.  Even more so, each bubble can be broken off and eaten one by one, making it the perfect not-too-sweet dessert or street-style snack food. 

As time moves forward, Zhen says she also expects to add additional items to the TsaoCaa menu, so keep your eyes out for that!

TsaoCaa is open seven days a week from noon to 9 p.m.  You can follow the restaurant on Instagram and Facebook.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.