While sitting in the fresh, spare surrounds of Bambu on Nicollet Avenue on a recent weekday, I am scanning the menu of Vietnamese desserts, coffee, and tea when suddenly the power goes out.
It seems the entire block is blacked out, but owners Hoang and Tiffany Do barely seem to notice. From the kitchen a loud pounding continues. It’s their staff, banging open fresh coconuts in the dark. On a busy day, they’ll pound open five cases worth to make che, a Vietnamese term for beverages, dessert drinks, and puddings.
Bambu is well known, especially within the Vietnamese community, for its chain of stores based out of San Jose, California. Whenever the Dos would travel, they would seek Bambu out for these traditional che desserts: coconut juices or milk festooned with the addition of jellies, seeds, coconut meat, beans, and tropical fruits.
Tiffany, who is gluten sensitive, stumbled on the fact that Vietnamese che desserts are safe for her to consume. She also realized that they could open their own Bambu store here in Minneapolis.
It’s a gamble, they know, opening a business that relies on tropical fruits, and making a product that would be most welcome on a hot beach. Hoang pushes a #1 Bambu Special towards me. It’s fresh coconut juice with longan (a tropical tree fruit reminiscent of lychee) basil seed, coconut meat, and pandan (an herbaceous tropical leaf used widely in Southesast Asian cooking).
“Imagine that on a hot day,” he says. Immediately, my brain is flooded with images of white hot sand and cool, frothing blue waters.
But perhaps the fact that we’re about to enter the deep freeze around here is a perfect excuse to grab one. It could be just the antidote to bitter cold.
The pandan jelly is made on site as well, along with taro jelly, both from a proprietary method that the Dos will only say is a lot like making handmade pasta. The juice is extracted from the pandan leaves, and they add sugar, agar agar, and coconut cream. Once the mixture sets, it goes into a machine that cuts it into strands or dots, easily slurpable through a straw the circumference of a thumb.
Bambu being an obvious franchise, I’m surprised to learn of the scratch preparations, each beginning in the morning anew. “If we don’t use it, we throw it out and start again,” says Hoang.
You can taste that freshness. The jellies are like friendly gummy bears that don’t fight your molars in a duel for your fillings, but melt soothingly. Each one tastes a little different. It’s like taking the wrappers off the Starbursts and having a guessing game.
If Che desserts don’t appeal to you, know that Bambu also specializes in wildly forceful Vietnamese coffee (including a salty caramel flavor), as well as fresh juices and smoothies including real passionfruit and the notorious durian, which the Dos assure me is incredibly addictive once you get past its notorious smell.
I take another sip of my delicious, gelatinous drink and save the durian for another visit.
Bambu Che, Coffee, and Teas
2743 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis