You have to sigh when you pronounce this Amazonian berry. It's Ah-sigh-hee. Don't say A-sigh; true fans will correct you immediately since one pronunciation is the sound of happiness and the other is an exhalation of disappointment. So why is there so much happiness contained in this berry? It makes you feel good.
"Açaí is a berry that comes from the Amazon in Brazil. It's considered a super fruit because of all the anti-oxidants that are in it," explains the owner of Açaí Hut, Rodrigo Cid, "Açaí makes you feel like you're in paradise." Even if you're not actually there. Luckily for Austinites, two Brazilian siblings have found a way to serve up bowls of paradise to overheated urban-dwellers this summer.
The Birth of Austin Açaí
Sweltering in line as they waited for an icy refreshment last summer, Rodrigo and Angelica Cid began wondering about the lack of açaí in the city. Why was it that snow cones, ice cream, and water ice abounded, but there were no healthy cold treats in a city that professed a deep dedication to fit lifestyles? The siblings were mystified. For them, açaí was the obvious answer for Austinites looking to cool off after a sweltering workout.
"It helps restore muscle. So, say you've been working out and then you eat or you drink açai, it helps to restore you again, it's reparative," elaborates Rodrigo as he explains his amazement at the lack of açaí in the city. How could Americans not have fallen head over heels for this refreshing treat?
According to Rodrigo, it's because you can't easily buy the same ingredients that you see in local Brazilian cafes.
"With local food, you will always have to adapt because you don't get everything that we get in Brazil in America. There is a whole different ecosystem," he explains. Not only is this little purple berry hard to come by, but "Açaí itself doesn't have a great taste. It's very earthy. It's almost like you're eating the Amazon."
So in order to combat the unappealing taste of the heavily fibrous berry, it takes some master mixing and local know-how. But those who grew up in Brazil know the secret to a good açaí bowl: guarana syrup and fruit.
A Childhood Love Becomes A Business
"I always did banana açaí," remembers Rodrigo of his childhood in Brazil. However, at the time "We didn't do bowls much, we did smoothies." The smoothies of his younger years are not, however, what are sold in American supermarkets.
When asked about the açaí smoothies that are available in the stores around town, Rodrigo paused for a moment to form a diplomatic answer.
"It's okay, it takes a lot of the nutrition away from it but it still tastes good."
So what is the real difference between Brazilan-produced juices and their American counterparts? Rodrigo explains that Brazilian açaí juice is less nutrient-dense. "80 percent of Brazil's market - they sell Grade C açaí. They save the Grade A for export."
While a lower grade doesn't necessarily denote a poor product, it does make it more difficult to serve açaí in a pure form. The lower quality shifts the berry's taste profile making it more bitter rather than pleasantly earthy. This, in turn, encourages producers to add more sugar to the final product.
So although Brazilian produced açaí beverages may seem more authentic, they are surprisingly deficient in comparison to what you will sample outside of their borders. Even for Rodrigo, this is unexpected. "We'd expect that to happen in America rather than Brazil, but it's a reverse concept now."
However, he does admit there is a silver lining to this inequity in produce quality. "Fortunately for us here in America, we don't get Grade C at all here."
And your first bite of an açaí bowl at Açaí Hut will confirm this claim. Mellow like a deep purple sunset, these bowls are pricked with colorful constellations of fruits, nuts, and berries.
Each bite is a unique savory experience. Every mouthful adds to the artistic tableau on your taste buds. (Not to mention the Jackson Pollock-esque drips that will end up on the summertime pavement if you aren't careful!)
On a hot summer day in Austin, there is nothing more satisfying.
The Açaí Hut Becomes the Açaí Cafe
Well, there may be one thing. Rodrigo reveals,
"We're planning our brick and mortar right now. We're going to extend the toppings and start doing all different kinds of nuts."
With the carefully curated selection that is currently available in the trailer, enthusiastic açaí patrons will be thrilled to have their culinary canvases expanded with goji berries, quinoa, nuts, and other tropical fruits.
While the public awaits the grand opening, however, they can still visit the Açaí Hut trailer where the flavors of paradise are served up cold every day of the week. You may even soon find that Austin's newest version of a healthy summertime snack outranks your longtime favorite frozen treats.