By Katlin Cilliers | Staff Writer
Did you know that northern Brazilians traditionally eat açaí as a savory meal, with fish, cassava flour or tapioca? The nutritious deep purple berry made its way to restaurant menus in the larger cities in Brazil, and went on to conquer the world as an exotic dessert – served with strawberry, banana, and honey – only after the ’90s.
On Oʻahu, it’s been popular for a few years, and it’s proven to be more than just another food fad; An açaí bowl is a great call to replenish energies after a strenuous hike or surf session. Being from Brazil myself, I set off to find the authentic delicacy here on the island. In my quest for the perfect, authentic açaí bowl, here is what I found.
Just Ice: sorry brah, dat no açaí
I’d been craving açaí for a while, so I decided to get a bowl the last time I went to Sandy beach, where I’d heard of a food truck called Just Ice, located by the parking spots. I ordered the bowl and was eager for the first spoonful of it, when…wait a minute, that is not açaí! In a closer look at the dark-pink paste at the bottom of the fruit bowl, beautifully arranged to appeal to the unknowing tourist, I could even see the little strawberry seeds mixed in the sugary blend. I made the most of it and ate the whole thing with my friends. After all, I wouldn’t throw $12 away. Expectations aside, the pineapple pieces and coconut flakes added a nice Hawaiian twist to it. It tasted OK … for an overly sweet strawberry sorbet.
Tropical Tribe: from the Açaí’s world capital to O‘ahu
The simple wooden counters and decor at Tropical Tribe make for a laid-back ambiance while customers line up to order their choice of açaí. I had high expectations as I learned that the owner imports his delicacy straight from Belém do Pará, in the north of Brazil. Tropical Tribe’s açaí bowls don’t go overboard: banana, strawberry and granola, topped by some honey compose the dish. I spent almost half an hour chatting to Renata, a fellow brazilian who manages the place. We lost track of time talking about our home country, which made the açaí a bit melted when I sat down to eat. The first spoonful took me straight back home, to afternoons by the beach with my cousins when we shared acaí bowls as we watched the sunset at a typical brazilian sorveteria (ice-cream parlor). The distinct earthy flavor, followed by a slightly bitter aftertaste – somewhat like dark chocolate – was neither fruity nor overly sweet. The texture was smooth and I could tell it hadn’t been diluted by tons of ice or frozen fruit. The large bowl cost $9 and was worth every penny. The store is located just outside of Waikīkī and is the go-to place if you want the authentic thing.
Banán: yummy blend
I had seen Banán’s food truck on Monserrat Avenue by Diamond Head before, so I planned to pay them a visit. The up-and-coming soft-serve smoothie bar has a beautifully decorated store across UH Mānoa on University Avenue. Banán also sells brand products, such as T-shirts and wallets, made of banana leaves. Its açaí boat cost $10. Visually appealing, the banana-açaí blend is served on a papaya with strawberry, granola and guess what? More banana. Yummy, but not berry authentic. The place and the sunset view were worth the trip, though.
Da Spot: disappointing
The Mōʻiliʻili restaurant serves delicious healthy food and and a variety of smoothies. However, when it comes to desserts, their açaí left a lot to be desired. The delicacy served at Da Spot was merely a sorbet, clearly noticeable by the light purple color (it’s supposed to be dark purple and smooth in texture, rather than having strawberry seeds in the mix). Authentic açaí tastes rather earthy. That may be why it’s become so popular as a blend with bananas or strawberries, since the flavor can be a bit much for some. (Can you imagine, then, what it would be like to eat it as a staple, with fish and tapioca as it is typically consumed in the North of Brazil?) Anyway…the accompanying fruit was also poor in quantity, as you can see in the photo. At least it was not pricy: $6 for the bowl. Oh, well. You get what you pay for.
Nalu Health Bar: great choice in town
This charming coffee shop has lively paintings on the walls and quirky colors for the chairs and decor. We ordered the 16 oz bowl ($9.50) and it came out rather quickly. Nalu’s açaí was really close to the one I had at Tropical Tribe, which makes is safe to say it is authentic. Nalu’s bowls come with the usual granola-strawberry-banana-honey combo, plus bee pollen, which I had never had before (and honestly, wasn’t too impressed about). I’m definitely coming back to their store, which is close to Ala Moana Center. If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll love their honey.