Laughing Buddha Rice Bowls & Boba Tea

A little, downtown storefront that launched Sal Mellelo's successful coffee business brings Medford a new drink sensation — "boba" tea, a beverage popular in Asia for its tapioca pearls in fruity, sweetened tea.

Actually, the tea gets second billing behind the entrees at Laughing Buddha Rice Bowls & Boba Tea, which Kan and Tracy Theavaprateep opened last month. The husband-and-wife team is eager to be part of what they think is a burgeoning downtown.

The restaurant's name encapsulates the entire menu, but these signature items still provide plenty of options to mix and match a meal that suits your tastes.

The rice bowls can be built on either nutty, brown rice or plain, white rice. Top that with your choice of chicken, beef or spicy beef, and finish it off with yellow curry, peanut or Thai-style teriyaki sauce. Vegetarians can ask for soft tofu.

The bowls come in two sizes: small for $4 and large for $5.50. The small provided a generous lunch portion.

The Theavaprateeps also own Natalee Thai Cuisine on McAndrews Road. They prepare Laughing Buddha's food there and bring it to the little shop at the corner of Front and Sixth streets twice a day.

On a recent lunch date, I ordered chicken and peanut sauce over white rice while my husband ordered spicy beef on brown rice with yellow curry sauce. Each bowl also boasted a melange of bright vegetables, including broccoli, green beans, red peppers and two kinds of carrots.

Diners can add another layer of flavor to the mild basics with an additional array of sauces: spicy sriracha and chili oil, plum sauce, soy sauce and a sweet, lemony house dressing common at Rogue Valley Thai restaurants, although this version has a little, mustardy kick accented by black sesame seeds.

A bit of sriracha provided the extra zip I was looking for in the sweet, smooth peanut sauce. The yellow curry was savory, but my husband boosted its flavor with sriracha and chili oil, too. He said some of the strips of beef could have been more thinly sliced. I found the bite-sized pieces of boneless chicken thigh moist and tender, though.

Boba tea, also called bubble tea, is definitely a drink people either love or hate. I enjoy slurping up the gummy orbs that bob in the bottom of the beverage, but my husband and at least one co-worker find the slippery pearls — nearly the size of marbles — a rather unpleasant surprise.

Although the tapioca comes in a variety of flavors and colors in Asia, Tracy Theavaprateep said she chose to feature the black pearls of tapioca initially because their striking appearance provides a visual warning against choking. More types of jellies will be introduced soon.

Laughing Buddha offers about a dozen flavors of bubble tea, all priced at $2.75. Most are served blended with ice to create a slushy-type drink to which the tapioca is added, but the Thai iced tea and iced coffee can be served simply over ice.

On our visit, my husband got a blended, pineapple tea, and I had a Thai iced tea over ice. Both were sticky-sweet, but mine avoided the strongly artificial flavor that dominated his selection.

The icy concoctions make a pleasant summer treat, and the rice bowls are an affordable, tasty and fairly healthy lunch option that I'll be back for.

A 5 p.m. closing time on weekdays makes Laughing Buddha a dinner destination only for early birds, but the restaurant is open late Fridays and Saturdays to catch people out on the town. While the Theavaprateeps planned to cater to bar-hoppers and club crowds, their endeavor might make a nice alternative for teens looking for a frugal date night, too.

— Anita Burke

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