Frozen, Fruity, Healthy and Delicious, Acai Bowls Are Everywhere This Summer

Why Is Everyone Suddenly Serving This Brazilian Super-Fruit?
By JON COEN | Jul 26, 2017
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Remember back in 2015 when every food spot on LBI was rushing out to scrawl “Fish Tacos!” on the chalkboard? Local travelers had been eating them on the West Coast and in Mexico for 15 years already. Some restaurants had been serving them for a decade. But that summer, everyone had to have a fish taco on the menu. Before that, it had been sushi.

Well, the fish taco of 2017 is undoubtedly the Acai Bowl. So just what is this suddenly famous offering? Is it a treat or health food? And where did it come from?

“Açaí,” pronounced ahh-sigh-ee, is derived from a sweet purple fruit (very similar to a blueberry) that grows on the acai palm in Central and South America. It’s predominantly harvested in Brazil, where it was crushed into a yummy cream-type substance and sold at food stalls along the beach. It became famous as a treat in the southern part of the country where it was dressed up with other fruits and sweet toppings. The berry’s health benefits have become legendary, bordering on sensation. Many Americans first tried it from food trucks in Hawaii or the West Coast. And there’s no doubt, it’s good stuff.

“My friend was the top salesman at his company and he won a trip to Hawaii. They posted this picture on Instagram of this really pretty beach. So I clicked on the location and started seeing all these photos of acai bowls from a food truck there. I had never heard of it, but I had to know what it tasted like,” said Robyn Pallotta, who was then owner of the Schwee Tea Company in Manahawkin, the first to serve these delicious bowls locally.

“I asked my distributor if they could get me acai and they could. So my friends and I got a recipe online and we were like ‘This is ridiculously good.’ I decided to throw it on the menu,” she remembered.

That was 2014. While Pallotta only owns the name and recipes at Schwee Tea, the new owner, Shauna Thompson, still does well with acai bowls.

Two recently opened area businesses are completely based on acai bowls and other breakfast spots, ice cream parlors, a sub shop and a fashion boutique offer them.

The berry is frozen, arrives as a paste and gets whipped into a substance of a consistency similar to ice cream. From there, the possibilities are endless. While traditional acai breakfast bowls have been topped with bananas, granola and honey, today they get paired with almond butter, peaches, goji berries, agave, herbs, cocoa nibs (crushed cocoa beans) and every kind of seed and nut you’ve ever heard of.

Opening right around the same time in June were Incredibowls in Surf City and Unbelievabowls in West Creek.

“I first had one in California. I was living in North Park, San Diego, and I used to have it every morning for breakfast,” said 22-year-old Mike Franconi of Surf City, who just opened Incredibowls.

“It’s been a surprise to the people of West Creek. We get a lot of questions. No one can pronounce it. It’s the funniest thing,” admits Shana Mau, manager of Unbelievabowls, which is also a full ice cream shop.

Both spots serve acai and pitaya bowls, pitaya being dragonfruit, somewhat more bitter.

Franconi used to buy acai packets at Pangaea Naturals in Manahawkin and make his own at home. He tried to open the store in 2015 and, after a few other locations didn’t work out, went for it in Surf City. He claims that about half the people who come through the door know what acai is and the other half, “the 40- to 70-year-olds,” as he described, think it’s a fruit cup.

“But once they try it they love it. I have my grandparents all over it now,” he added.

He sources his acai from Acai Exotic, a small company owned by a friend who travels to a co-op in Brazil and picks the acai for export and distribution. Franconi mixes his acai with frozen bananas and almond milk. Incredibowls gets busy each day at 10 a.m., and Franconi has lengthened his hours to stay open until 8 p.m. to satisfy a new night-time dessert crowd.

“It’s blowing up because it makes for pretty pictures,” Franconi said. “But really we’re into the health aspect. Our acai and our fruit are all organic. We have 14-year-old girls who come in here and mostly want to take photos of their bowls for Instagram. But then you get the 30-year-old who comes in from a run and wants it because it’s healthy. That’s how it became so popular in California. It’s a lifestyle food.”

Since Unbelievabowls is also an ice cream shop, all the traditional ice cream toppings can be added as well. The Build-Your-Own Bowl is very popular.

The acai berry is known as a superfood, loaded with antioxidants and said to burn fat. While the former is true, the latter has yet to be proven.

“It’s pretty healthy. When you put all that fruit and topping on it, it can have a lot of sugar, but it’s obviously better than a cheesecake. You could make a much worse choice than acai,” Mau added.

In addition to the new specialty shops, Beach Haven has become a hotbed (coldbed?) of acai bowls. The Shack, a contemporary eatery has four types and Coastal Coffee Company has got some creative ones of their own. Even the café at Sur La Plage offers them, an indication of how fashionable these bowls are. In Surf City, Granny Annie’s ice cream and Pyour Pour are touting them this summer. The Jersey Shore-based franchise Playa Bowls has been expanding into Ocean County from Belmar. Expect more acai bowls to show up on menus through the season.

As for Pallotta, she is now opening PICKT, the café adjacent to the soon-to-be open Union Market and Gallery at Tuckerton Seaport. She will have smoothie bowls, but not acai.

“I have to do something different. I can’t think of anywhere that isn’t selling acai bowls now,” she laughed.


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