On a recent afternoon, a young boy waited in line to order at a new açaí-bowl shop in Mountain View. Full of hope, he asked his mother, "Do they have any milkshakes?," and moaned in disappointment when she responded, "No, but they have ... 'fruit shakes.'"
Let's face it: Not everyone has hopped on the açaí-bowl bandwagon. But the increasing popularity of these blended "superfruit" concoctions is hard to deny, with açaí bowls popping up in dedicated shops and on menus throughout the Bay Area.
The purple fruit commonly known as an "açaí berry" is in fact a small stone fruit that comes from the Brazilian açaí palm. It's packed full of vitamins, minerals, protein and antioxidants, making it a popular ingredient in juices and smoothies. The açaí-bowl trend has touched down in the Peninsula over the last several months with the opening of Bare Bowls in downtown Palo Alto and Bowl of Heaven and Nekter Juice Bar in Mountain View. Vitality Bowls, a franchised chain based in San Ramon, is on its way to California Avenue in Palo Alto this spring. Even Los Altos' Voyageur du Temps, an upscale French-Japanese cafe, now has an açaí bowl on the breakfast menu.
There seem to be two types of açaí bowl purveyors in the area: independent businesses such as Bare Bowls, and larger chain locations like Nekter and Bowl of Heaven.
Bare Bowls, Palo Alto's inaugural açaí-bowl shop, opened at 530 Emerson St. (next door to Mac's Smoke Shop) in November. It's the brainchild of two friends -- Menlo Park native Sarah Lipps and Bridget Corson, originally from Minnesota -- who met at Pepperdine University in Southern California and share a love of health and entrepreneurship.
Their health-centric bowls are made from frozen, pure açaí (no added sweeteners or other ingredients). They blend açaí with other fruits (often banana, berries or dates) and nut butters, then top it all off with an artful arrangement of banana, strawberries, blueberries, goji berries, coconut and hemp seed. Their nut butters and nut milks (including cashew and almond) are made in-house and are offered for sale in uber-hip mason jars. Bare Bowls has its own blend of granola, plus some from San Francisco-based Worthy Granola and locally made Ladera Granola.
"We're just really focused on pure ingredients and people knowing what they're getting," Lipps explained before the shop opened. "It's just a handcrafted bowl all together."
This reporter's standby Bare Bowl is the "Gorilla," made from açaí blended with strawberries, banana, date, cashew milk and peanut butter and topped with granola, banana, hemp seed and a drizzle of honey. It's not overly sweet and has the added boost of protein from the peanut butter.
The "omni green" sounds somewhat ominous -- among its ingredients are kale, spinach, broccoli and avocado as well as apple, banana and dates. The result comes out bright green but happily tastes nothing like the veggies packed inside. It's sweet, and you taste apple over any of the other ingredients.
At Bare Bowls, a regular bowl goes for $12 and a small for $8. The regular is a generous serving; share one or go for the small if you're not starving. Get caffeinated with drinks from Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz. There are also smoothies and a small selection of grab-and-go healthy snacks and drinks (not made by Bare Bowls, but all as local as possible).
(Pro tip: When Bare Bowls gets busy, service slows down. If you're in a rush, order your bowl ahead using the OrderAhead smartphone app.)
A very different açaí bowl is on the menu at Voyageur du Temps in Los Altos, where the larger focus is not on açaí at all but on fresh-baked breads and pastries (plus breakfast and lunch items). Voyageur's açaí bowl ($11) is actually more yogurt than açaí. The unequal proportions were disappointing at first glance but delicious at first bite. Farm-fresh yogurt is a nontraditional but welcome complement to the açaí. There's toasted granola buried at the bottom and fresh fruit and honey on top, so make sure to dig and mix around to get all the flavors.
The bowl is large enough to be satisfying, but small enough that you could order it with another breakfast or lunch item if you wanted to.
The 288 1st St. cafe has to be one of the most pleasant places to enjoy an açaí bowl. Voyageur occupies a 3,000-square-foot Craftsman-style building that used to be a train station, complete with a large front porch and outdoor patio. If you opt for a spot indoors, grab a seat by the glass-encased bakery and watch Voyageur bakers knead pastry dough.
A few miles south down El Camino Real in Mountain View is Bowl of Heaven, the first Northern California location of a Southern California-based chain. Dan McCormick opened the first Bowl of Heaven in Rancho Santa Margarita four years ago, inspired by trips to visit three of his daughters attending college in Oahu, Hawaii, where he and his wife would often eat açaí bowls. McCormick teamed up with his son-in-law, Brandon Beazer, to start the company.
McCormick, who has long worked in anti-aging and nutrition, brings a love of health to the business. In his words: "Our mission is to delight and nourish and satisfy our customers and bring superfruits from around the world that will allow them to feel fabulous."
Bowl of Heaven Mountain View, tucked away in a corner of the Grant Road Shopping Center at 1040 Grant Road, does not add any sugar to its frozen-fresh açaí (direct from Brazil) but does blend in the company's own proprietary "Maq7" juice: a blend of seven superfruits, from goji berries and açaí to prickly pear and maqui, a Chilean berry. Their bowls are thus sweeter than others.
This reporter found their standard "North Shore Original Bowl" -- açaí blended with apple juice, Maq7, banana, blueberries and strawberries, topped with granola, slices of banana and honey -- overly sweet, with no distinct flavors coming through.
The "Paradise" bowl, however, lived up to its name. Prickly pear, Maq7, mint, papaya, pineapple and banana make up the base; toppings are granola, coconut, sliced strawberries, kiwis and honey. The crowning flavor was the mint.
The bowls are served in two sizes: regular (about $9) and large (about $11) except for the most-popular North Shore Original, which you can also get in a small for $3.99. Portions are enormous.
Bowl of Heaven also serves smoothies and fresh fruit and veggie juices. With limited seating inside, this might be the choice for someone looking to grab a bowl on the go.
On its way to California Avenue in Palo Alto this spring is another franchised chain: Vitality Bowls, which began four years ago with one location in San Ramon and has spread throughout the Bay Area. Three Stanford University graduates are running the Palo Alto franchise, which took over a space previously occupied by Cho's Mandarin Dim Sum at 233 California Ave.
Tara Gilad opened the first Vitality location after coping with the challenges presented by her young daughter's severe food allergies.
"She was so limited in what she could eat; I wanted to get her those berries every day," Gilad said, declaring, "açaí is the healthiest food on this planet."
All Vitality Bowl outlets have non-cross-contamination kitchens, meaning "people with nut allergies, berry allergies, dairy allergies, on a paleo diet, on a vegan diet, flax allergy -- you name it" can eat there without any concern of getting ill, which happened to Gilad's daughter frequently when they ate out.
Vitality Bowl focuses on açaí, but also separates itself from the pack by serving other food items like panini, soups and salads. They're aiming to open toward the beginning of May, Gilad said.
Bowl of Heaven
Voyageur du Temps