We live in a post-acai America. The small, dark-purple berries, originally a delicacy of the Ribeirinhos people of the Brazilian Amazon, were heralded as a superfood. Acai became a favorite of celebrities and chiseled beach bums after it was brought to the United States as frozen puree in 2001.
In the mid-2000s, acai (pronounced ah-sah-ee) exploded into a mini-health craze when the antioxidant-rich berry was marketed as an anti-aging, weight-loss miracle food.
But by the early 2010s, it was being exposed by The New York Times and The New Yorker as a fad whose health benefits were tenuous at best. Today, acai and acai bowls are greeted by a mix of scorn and, usually, gendered derision—a big bowl of homeopathy and white-person dreadlock chunks for 19-year-old heiresses wearing Lululemon.
Which is ludicrous, as acai bowls are healthy ice-cream sundaes. Just replace the ice cream with a sorbet that tastes like a lightly sweet mix of grape juice, blueberries and strawberries, trade the cookies and whatnot for fresh fruit and granola, and replace the sauces with a big pile of almond butter, honey and nuts. That's an acai bowl—it's delicious and cheap, and you can eat one for a meal and not feel sick.
So I did. For many meals, in fact.
The Best, Not Close
Summer Breeze Bowl at Kiva Cafe & Spa
1533 NW 24th Ave., kivateaspa.com. $9.
Blend: Acai, banana, mango, lime, orange blossom water, mango juice.
The Summer Breeze Bowl at Nob Hill's Kiva literally and figuratively towers over the competition. Kiva's orange-pink, silky-smooth acai blend so exceeded the grocery-store, frozen-berry flavor of most of its competitors, it might as well have been a different dish entirely. Gently tart, floral and tropically round, the base made me feel fine in the dead of winter, by far the most nuanced and complex of any acai I've eaten.
Whoever figured out that coconut oil can be used as Magic Shell deserves a Nobel Prize. The fatty goodness of the oil and fresh coconut flakes magically played off the lime juice and mint-enhanced dried cranberries and strawberries, rounded out with earthy banana and granola. All of this was presented beautifully, like a sunset-colored Mount Hood.
Rip City Bowl at Moberi
Three locations in Portland, moberiblends.com. $9.75 ($7.25 half size).
Blend: Acai, strawberries, bananas, almond milk.
Moberi's simple, gently tart acai blend holds its sorbetlike texture for much longer than most other bowls, supporting a heap of almond butter, granola and honey like an island suspended on a purple sea. Throw in (maybe) healthy superfoods bee pollen and omega-3-and-6-heavy hemp hearts for good measure, and turn it into a power lunch with an onsite exercise bike that you can use to run the blender mixing your bowl.
Nut Bowl at Bula Kava House
3115 SE Division St., kavabar.bulakavahouse.com. $9.50.
Blend: Acai, almond milk, banana, mixed berries, peanut butter.
Portland's sole house dedicated to kava, the sedative root-based beverage native to the island cultures of the South Pacific, also doubles as a pleasant cafe serving tropical food, including acai. The nut bowl's blend complements the berry's natural earthiness with peanut butter, giving it a rounder flavor and silky mouthfeel. And Bula Kava House sets it off correctly, with warm flavors from local Hammer & Tuffy's deeply roasty granola, toasted almonds and cinnamon, with blackberries for refreshing contrast.
Original Bowl at Carioca Bowls
827 NE Alberta St., cariocabowls.com. $9 ($6 half size).
Blend: Acai, banana, blueberry, strawberry.
Alberta hippie sanctuary Carioca Bowls offers the best build-your-own options for diners looking for a healthy meal in a neighborhood heavy on bars and fast-casual spots. Blueberry is featured prominently in the Original Bowl blend, providing an ester note reminiscent of Belgian beer. And there are an unparalleled choice of toppings—fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts, nut butters and weird health boosts aplenty. I went with tried-and-true almond butter and some dried dates, a sweet complement to the acai.
ACAI YOU LATER
Sunnyside Bowl at Kure Juice Bar
Five locations in Portland, kurejuicebar.com. $8.50.
Blend: Acai, strawberries, banana, apple juice.
I'm melting! Kure had by far the thinnest acai blend of any bowl sampled, including one that thawed so quickly that its flavor was indistinguishable from the crackly granola that sank into the slurry. The toppings make the grade: Toasted hazelnuts and tart goji berries (another former superfruit) are an upscale touch, and the strawberries were unseasonably sweet and fresh. But the acai let the whole thing down, turning to soup even as two people tried to quickly gobble up one bowl.
Soma Bowl at Greenleaf Juicing Company
Four locations in Portland, greenleafjuice.com. $8.50.
Blend: Acai, blueberry, banana, almond butter, kale, orange juice.
Greenleaf sticks to its name, mixing kale into the Soma Bowl for a tart, bitter and fairly thin acai blend. That's not necessarily a bad thing if it's accompanied by bright toppings. But granola, untoasted cashew, flavorless coconut and bitter cacao nibs are not bright toppings.
Acai Primo at Jamba Juice
Multiple locations, jambajuice.com. $6.99.
Blend: Acai, soy milk.
I wanted Jamba Juice's sole foray into acai to be a tasty underdog, the nice, not-deep-fried snack to enjoy while foraying into the bowels of Lloyd Center. Alas, the otherwise acceptable but slightly thin acai base was harshly let down by its toppings. The granola was flavorless and crackly like Rice Krispies, while the banana was overripe and the honey acridly sweet. Everything tasted like it had been left sitting out.