When a friend tipped me off about some acai concoction at Apple A Day that was selling at speeds that bordered on lunatic, I wondered whether I'd fallen back in time four years or so. That's when the real acai craze was in full swing, when people were buying $25 bottles of the juice, swearing it helped them cease aging, lose weight, gain energy, avoid cancer, and become stallions in the sack. People threw Tupperware-style parties to promote the superfood.
But this is a different incarnation of the berry. Frozen, unprocessed acai from a company called Nativo is the base of a dish that defies classification. (Our best attempt is to call it a frozen fruit pudding.) The other ingredients are simply bananas and apple juice.
It's blended in a food processor, served in a huge bowl, and topped with banana slices for $10 a pop. Granola is a usual add-on, and costs just a dollar. It's common to eat acai this way in Rio de Janeiro, according to Mario Levinsohn, a native of Brazil who studies economics here in Miami. He was at the Apple A Day counter eating his first of three huge bowls of the stuff when I walked in. Three! At his elbows were two friends, both of whom were also indulging in Rio bowls.
Rio acai bowl as prepared at Apple A Day
"I love the taste. This is the traditional way we have acai in Rio," Levinsohn said. "I've eaten this every day ever since I was a little boy."
"It's got eight times the antioxidant properties of blueberries," his friend chimed in between spoonfuls. The superfruit does have rich amino acid and fatty acid profiles, and is said to offer a host of health benefits, including the ones mentioned at the top of this article.
Apple A Day started getting Nativo's pure, raw acai product and offering the Rio acai bowl about three months ago. Employees say they can't keep the stuff in stock.
"A lot of Brazilians come in and have it every day, but then they tell their co-workers, and they start coming in too. That's why I call it the epidemic," said Apple A Day employee Alejandro Llamozas, who also says he eats a bowl daily. "You start to feel bad if you don't have it," he said, although he denied that the dish bore any similarity to crack cocaine.
Based on my own very unscientific research, I would have to agree that lust for these cold, gelatinous purple bowls seems to be viral. When I spoke to a few South Beach dwelling acquaintances about them after my visit to Apple A Day, an uncannily large portion of them had either already been in for one or had heard about them.
So is it really that spectacular? Obviously, I had to find out firsthand.
First, I was surprised to find that it wasn't very sweet. It had a creamy texture and a pleasant, mild taste. The granola and banana topping made the food seem more dessert-like, but if I were to order it again, I think I would forgo the granola (even though it was delicious) to avoid the added fat and sugar and reap the unadulterated health benefits. It may have been a psychosomatic response, but I will say that I felt an energy lift after I finished my bowl.
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I thought the portion size was generous, and found it surprising that Levinsohn could sit and literally eat bowl after bowl of the stuff. The staff at Apple A Day informed me that three was his usual daily intake. I guess it's a Brazilian thing, and an expensive one at that. At the rate he's eating, he's spending $900 a month on the beloved Brazilian breakfast food.
You can get a supersized superfruit bowl of your own for $10 at Apple A Day, if you're willing to risk acquiring a healthy but potentially costly new addiction. The shop also sells packets of the frozen acai puree for $6.49 in case you'd rather use it to make smoothies at home.