Halfway between habit and addiction, it's a two- or even three-time-a-week routine.
This is no private affair, quite to the contrary. Lines of people wait outside Bambu, as well as the Purple Kow, InfiniTea, Na Ya, Xpresso Tea and many others.
Serving a mostly young clientele, these fusion-style cafes offering desserts, tea, smoothies and juices made from Asian fruits (at prices from $3 to $5) are spreading like wildfire – or nail salons – around the Bay Area.
In the past few years, in my Richmond neighborhood alone – along Geary, Clement and Balboa streets – more than two dozen have popped up. Their concoctions are not just delicious, they are considered superfoods, with health benefits galore.
"Smoothies have jumped out of the health food stores and into tony cafés, duking it out with specialty coffees," reports WebMD. "The chalky powders and additives with the funny aftertaste are gone. Even the humblest street vendor is offering upscale jolts like wheatgrass and whey."
Bambu is a franchise operation out of San Jose, home of Tri and Christy Tran, the siblings who own the Richmond District store. Tri, 28, and Christy, 30, are second-generation immigrants from Vietnam. Christy was born in Vietnam, just as the family left the country, Tri was born in an Indonesian refugee camp, as the Trans migrated to the U.S.
Tri says Bambu’s San Jose locations are more popular because it's warmer there than in The City’s fogbound avenues. He adds, "We have better business when the sun is up and people are looking for teas and smoothies with ice."
Hot latte, mocha and chocolate are on the menu, but the super-strong Vietnamese coffee is usually served on ice, even in the area's summer frost.
In addition to standard fare of 84 desserts, smoothies and milk teas, the Trans also serve a green waffle called chewy paffle (I don't see it as a competitor to the usual crisp version) and a chocolate banana smoothie.
While I’m primarily devoted to durian from southeastern Asia (described as "smelling like hell and tasting like heaven"), I like the many options in fruit teas and smoothies at these places: mango, lychee, coconut, papaya, longan, basil seed, banana, jackfruit, red and green bean, peach, strawberry, piña colada, and others.
Most local cafés are Vietnamese and Chinese, but some businesses are Thai, Filipino, and Japanese variations, the last heavy on crepes.
Belly Good Café & Crepes in Japantown is a popular (and crowded) creperie. It offers a great variety of toppings, including ice cream and six kinds of fruit. Prices are under $10.
The pioneering Chinese Quickly franchise – which made tapioca milk teas popular and was involved in the downfall of former Supervisor Ed Jew – is still around, but it no longer dominates as enterprising newcomers, both small chains and individual stores, have taken over what is clearly a lucrative field.
Another original chain, Jamba Juice, remains strong on the Peninsula, with a dozen stores, which carry sandwiches, flatbreads and baked goods in addition to smoothies, frozen yogurt and teas.
Blue Hawaii Açaí Café at the Embarcadero features a complex bowl that shares its name with the café: a blend of açaí (the dark purple fruit of South American açaí palm), mixed berries and milk (optional), with the consistency of frozen yogurt and topped with strawberries, blueberries, granola, and honey. At $10 for a medium serving, it’s dessert that's a meal by itself.
Bambu Desserts & Drinks
6050 Geary Blvd. (at 25th Avenue), S.F.
(415) 379-4683, www.bambusf.com
Belly Good Cafe & Crepes
1737 Post St., S.F.
(415) 346-8383, www.yelp.com/biz/belly-good-cafe-and-crepes-san-francisco
Blue Hawaii Açaí Café
2 Embarcadero Center, S.F.
(415) 248-0011, http://bluehawaiisf.com/
5351 Geary Blvd., S.F.
(415) 751-1744, www.yelp.com/biz/infinitea-san-francisco
Na Ya Dessert House
5338 Geary Blvd., S.F.
(415) 213-5308, www.yelp.com/biz/na-ya-dessert-house-san-francisco
3620 Balboa St., S.F.
(415) 387-9009, www.purplekow.com/
6901 Geary Blvd., S.F.
(415) 386-8688, www.yelp.com/biz/xpresso-tea-san-francisco