Cha Community Wants You to Feel at Home
Boba fans love it, tea nerds flock to it, and dumpling freaks fall over themselves to snag boxes of hot pork or veggies dumplings and attend sold-out dumpling classes. Whatever you’re into, Cha Community has a place for you at the table.
Cha Community, the vision of Jaja Chen and Devin Li, is an intentionally inclusive boba tea shop on Franklin Avenue in downtown Waco and North Main Street in Temple. Chen and Li’s mission is twofold: offer the most authentic boba tea and snacks in Waco and create a space that fosters diversity, conversations, and connections that bridge cultural divides.
Boba Tea, Lemonades & The Best Cold Noodles in Town
Everything about the Cha Community cafe on Franklin is designed to welcome guests and create a sense of community, hence the name, which was changed from Waco Cha in 2019. Light from the many windows illuminates a brightly-colored interior with turquoise, pink, and lemon yellow accents, roomy white tables, a lounge area, and an enormous mural designed by Jessica Hannan celebrating Waco’s diversity.
Shelves near the register are stocked with goods from local makers: adorable clay dumpling earrings from Acute Accents, boba-themed greeting cards and diversity-minded Waco coloring books from designs with Jamie, reusable jars for purchasing loose leaf teas, and displays advertising the Cha Community dumpling and boba kits for home cooking enthusiasts.
When you reach the counter, a friendly staff member will walk you through the menu and take your order. The guidance is helpful, as there are myriad choices to make. The selection of toppings alone might challenge the indecisive. Will it be classic tapioca boba or coconut jelly? Strawberry popping boba—clear, thin-skinned, plant-based balloons filled with gooey fruit centers—or aloe vera? And then there’s the tea—will it be hot or cold, green, black, or herbal, milky or sparkling?
Hot pots of premium jasmine and osmanthus teas direct from Taiwan are available, but the blazing June sun necessitates the refreshment of cool liquids, fresh fruit purees, and just the right amount of ice to cool your beverage to the last slurp without interfering with your boba.
The sparkling lemonades, made with fizzy bottled rainwater, fresh lemon syrup, and the addition of seasonal fruit purees, are especially good on a sweltering day. A 20-ounce cup of passion fruit or butterfly pea sparkling lemonade without any toppings at all is a perfect antidote to the summer sweats, but you can candy it up with some mango popping boba for additional sweetness. The syrupy-sweet filling in the popping boba is akin to the substance inside a Gusher candy but with actual real fruit flavor, and the shell of the boba snaps pleasantly when it bursts in your mouth.
Milky tea fans will love the ample combinations on offer, most of which are made from oat milk and completely dairy-free. Thai tea, Earl Grey, chai, jasmine, coconut black tea, and matcha in various combinations (plain, with lavender, or strawberry puree) all make for a dessert-like treat with or without the addition of boba. And of course, you can always adjust the sweetness level to a minimum, if you prefer not to drink your dessert. If coffee is more your thing, the Vietnamese coffee is a no-brainer—sweet, creamy, and strong.
But be sure to check out the small-but-mighty snack menu, a riff on the Taiwanese tea house lunchboxes of Chen’s youth, as all three of the dishes are must-haves.
Cha Community is known for its dumplings, and for good reason. Chen and Li have been making pork and vegetarian dumplings for Wacoans since before Cha Community had a brick-and-mortar location (you may have seen their pop-up truck by Milo All Day in the early days of the pandemic), and they have perfected the art. Tangy ground pork or savory softened vegetables (cabbage, mushrooms, tofu, edamame, carrots, and green beans, oh my!) are encased by thin but toothsome wrappers and pan-fried. The salty, slightly charred dumplings pair beautifully with the bright, crunchy, and lightly-dressed Asian slaw that accompanies them, and you’ll be eyeing those make-at-home dumpling kits well before your last dumpling disappears.
But you’re seriously missing out if you skip the Taiwanese cold noodles, which somehow manage to be light, refreshing, and satiating at the same time. A tangle of thin, tender angel hair noodles is topped with finely shredded chicken breast, sliced cucumbers, grated carrots, and topped with deeply savory fried onion crispies and a light, creamy peanut sauce. There’s the sweet crunch of the veg, the gently pungent crisp of the onions, a nutty-soy richness from the sauce, and those lovely cold noodles holding it all together—it is divine.
The chickpea curry is a comfort dish if ever there was one, particularly for those who grew up eating the instant Japanese varieties such as Golden Curry. With its signature sweetness and umami curry spices, this vegetarian stew dotted with whole chickpeas should be a vegetarian staple for any curry lover, and it’s available in small cups for those who can’t commit to a whole, hot helping until the November breeze rolls in.
Creating Community Through Tea & Dumplings
Chen is from Norman, Oklahoma, but spent a great deal of her middle school years in China and all of high school in Taiwan, where her family originates. Li moved from Guangzhou, China, to Houston as a teen. The two met as undergraduates at Baylor, where they were studying social work and mechanical engineering. They married after graduation, and Chen continued with her clinical social work, eventually opening her own mental health practice, while Li worked at schools like University High teaching engineering to high schoolers.
But they began to realize something was missing. Waco’s Asian community lacked a strong presence in the downtown scene, a place to gather and share the meals, drinks, and conversations central to their cultural identities.
“Part of it was that Devin, as a teacher, had a lot of students who shared their experiences of feeling like they couldn’t find a sense of belonging in all the downtown Waco development,” says Chen. “There were a lot of different themes that were emerging connected to the idea of not finding representation of Asian cuisine and culture in Waco and a desire to see that happen, but there was uncertainty in terms of what that would be or look like.”
“We had always been really focused on hospitality,” says Chen, “so we were already creating teas and dumplings and other foods just out of the joy of who we are—inviting friends and using tea and food as a way to foster friendships and connections. And then eventually, as we continued sharing our food and tea with friends, enough people put the idea in our head that we needed to do something with this, to share it with more people.”
Chen and Li had observed other successful local businesses get their start at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market, so they decided to test out their boba tea business there. They applied to be a farmers market vendor in 2017 but were waitlisted.
“We spent the time refining recipes,” says Chen. “Devin in particular would always be serving me a recipe to see if I felt like the boba tea flavors were authentic.”
In the spring of 2018, they snagged a spot at the farmers market and began selling boba tea under the name Waco Cha. Their success led them to open their first brick-and-mortar location in 2020, and a deep commitment to representation and togetherness resulted in a name change in 2021: Cha Community.
Since then, Chen and Li have opened a second location in Temple, operate multiple trucks at farmers markets and events (you can still find them at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market), cater parties and corporate events (they have a dumpling bar, y’all), and host community dumpling nights where they teach guests the ins and outs of crafting dumplings at home.
Building Bridges Sustainably
On each table at Cha Community, you’ll see conversation cards with prompts like “What does community mean to you” and “Discuss the ways ethnicity and race intersect in your neighborhood, community, or workplace.” It’s all about creating dialogue around ideas of inclusivity, diversity, and understanding. It’s a signal to guests that all are welcome.
Cha Community participates in local Pride events during the month of June and supports Black-owned businesses and organizations such as The Un-Included Club nonprofit in Temple, with whom they just partnered to offer fresh pea microgreens in their Taiwanese cold noodles boxes, and myriad Asian tea and food suppliers across the nation. Chen says their team of employees is 70% BIPOC, LGBTQ+, Asian, or female, and that is by design. Chen believes she and Li are very much not alone in their desire to find and create culturally relevant spaces for the entire community.
“I think there are more and more business owners in Waco and Temple that also want to value inclusion,” says Chen. “There’s a growing Temple Pride. There’s a beer garden there called Fox Dog Cafe and they’re doing a lot to foster more inclusion in that realm. We’ve been excited to see that happening. In Waco, there’s more folks than we might think, but there’s still more work to be done.”
Chen and Li are also passionate about environmental issues, particularly Chen, who is on the advisory committee of the Sustainable Resource Practices Council with the City of Waco and Carole Fergusson of Keep Waco Beautiful. (One of the many goals of this initiative is to assist local businesses who wish to move toward more environmentally sustainable business practices.) Cha Community just launched a green packaging program, allowing dine-in customers to sip their drinks from reusable mason jars and metal straws instead of disposable cups and plastic straws, and all of their food packaging is biodegradable.
Devin Li’s Chinese Tomato Egg Stir Fry
This classic Chinese dish is one of Li’s favorite recipes to make at home. It is quick, easy, vegetarian, and can be adjusted to be soy-free for those with allergies. In China, this dish is often served with rice, but you can get creative and pair it with your favorite starch or eat it as-is.
Recipe serves 2.
3 small to medium tomatoes, cut into wedges
3 green onion stalks, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 tsp white pepper
1 tbsp soy sauce (or coco aminos for gluten/soy-free individuals)
3 tbsp cooking oil
2 tbsp ketchup (an alternative: 2 tsp honey or sugar)
Crack eggs into a bowl, and whisk until combined. Preheat wok or pan over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons of oil to wok, allow to heat, then add eggs. Scramble eggs quickly to your desired level of doneness, pour into a bowl, and set aside.
Add remaining tablespoon of oil to wok, heat on high, and add tomatoes and green onions. Stir-fry until the tomatoes are soft, then add the cooked eggs. Add ketchup (or alternative sweetener—see ingredients above) and soy sauce or coco aminos. Mix to combine, cover wok, and steam for 1–2 minutes.
Uncover pan, season with salt to taste, and serve as-is or over rice.
Everything Chen and Li do is intentional and geared toward bridging cultural gaps, creating safe gathering spaces, and educating guests about Asian culture. Their cafe on Franklin embodies those values, and there is evidence of it everywhere. June marks Cha Community’s four-year anniversary, so clearly they’re doing it right.
“The idea of cultural integrity and authenticity is a huge passion of ours,” says Chen, “and it’s become even more so now as we’ve continued over the years. That piece of authenticity and integrity, inclusivity, bridging cultures, has been huge for us.”
Cha Community is located in Waco at 1001 Franklin Avenue and in Temple at 7 North Main Street. You can also find the Cha Community food truck on Saturdays at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market. Check out their website for the hours of operation at all three locations.
Aniceto Charles owns Tru Jamaica with his mother, Vivia Charles, whose menu reflects the dishes she grew up eating in the small town of Pratville, Jamaica.
Kanōm Thai Street Food will be back in a year or so once its owner, Nitcha Garsee, returns from Thailand with new recipes for her menu. Keep your eyes peeled, because Kanōm is not to be missed.
For more than twenty years, Helados La Azteca has been serving up Jalisco-style frozen treats, candies, and savory snacks, making it one of Waco’s oldest ice cream parlors in operation.
Laziza Mediterranean Cuisine, a small, casual cafe tucked away next to Crunch Fitness in the Westview Village shopping center, serves up jaw-droppingly good meals cooked to order by owner and chef Mouna El Boustani.
Conveniently located at the intersection of Highway 84 and Loop 340, East Market is a haven for fresh, frozen, and shelf-stable products from countries all over Asia, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, China, Korea, and India.