When it comes to superfoods- you know, those great-for-you bites, lauded for staving off cancer, brimming with antioxidants, amino acids and other natural ingredients the açaí berry has become such a hero that you almost picture it wearing a crusader's cape.
But the round, smooth, dark purple berry, first cultivated in the Brazilian rainforest, has been standard-issue among native tribes for centuries. Thank the Hawaiian surfing community for bringing it stateside. They tried the açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) bowl, a frozen fruit-and-granola-filled, smoothie-like concoction, in Brazil and, noticing an energy in¬crease after eating it, brought the idea back home. It is now showing up more frequently throughout Southern California.
Muhammed and Nisreen El- Hasan of Redondo Beach were so intrigued by their first taste of an açaí bowl that they opened a restau¬rant last November centered solely on the concept. Beach Bowls Açaí Café caters to a South Bay crowd hungry for a delicious bowl (yes, you eat it with a spoon) or smoothie chock-full of what is said to be one of the most nutritious foods in the world. The El-Hasans say there's indeed something addictive about their bowls.
Customers include a diverse crowd ranging from lip-smacking babies to senior citizens. One 78-year-old fan makes it a point to stop in before his regular bowling outing because, he says, "I had my best game ever last time I ate one of these."
Over an açaí bowl, El-Hasan recently shared some insight on the versatile food that fills you up with¬out weighing you down and that can be eaten as a snack or meal any time.
How do you know the açaí craze isn't just a fad?
We did a lot of research prior to opening the restaurant. Interest in the açaí berry won't fade until the appetite for antioxidants fades. We see açaí bowls as a healthy alterna¬tive to frozen yogurt-the way frozen yogurt is to ice cream.
Can you share some recipe suggestions?
Our recipes are proprietary. We spend a lot of time in our test kitchen-at home with our kids, doing some fun experimenta¬tion. We're looking forward to bringing a lemon açaí bowl to the menu this summer; last fall we introduced a pumpkin spice açaí combo. Of course, some flavors just don't work. Our cayenne and jalapeno bowl didn't go over too well; neither did the gummy bear (although my sweet tooth enjoyed testing this one).
Speaking of taste-testing, is there a fan favorite? What is your favorite?
The crowd-pleaser is the Tropical Açaí Bowl with pineapple, banana and mango. My all-time favorite is the Mint Breeze. [It's named after El-Hasan's 11-year employer, The Daily Breeze, where he is a business editor and "Busi¬ness Casual" columnist.] If I didn't eat an açaí bowl every day, I'd be exhausted. In fact, if I don't get my bowl, I get grumpy.
Beach Bowls Açaí Café is located at 2370 Crenshaw Blvd. in Torrance, 310-328-8515.
All About Açaí
While it may resemble another superfood, the blueberry, in appearance, açaí is the scene-stealer when it comes to nutritional value. With five times more antioxidants per serving than blueberries- and more than pomegranates too-açaí is also packed with omegas, vitamins A and C, iron, calcium and fiber. The polyphenol antioxidant in the berry is known for anti-aging qualities, and its B-vitamin complex is proven to boost energy.
Açaí tastes like an intense blend of berries and chocolate, although eaten by itself, it's almost bitter. But blended with fruits, juices and toped with honey (a la an açaí bowl), the flavor is rich and satisfying.
Wondering why you've never seen the fresh berry in the grocery produce section? That's because it has almost no shelf life and must be frozen soon after harvest. But you can find frozen açaí, as well as powder and juice, at your local health food store. Be prepared to pay the price, though; a food believed to save the day like this superhero doesn't come cheap.