Chopstix packs ’em in for bubble teas and sturdy Vietnamese at bargain prices.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
You either love ’em or hate ’em.
I’m talking about those chewy, coffee-colored, gelatinous orbs known as boba or pearls. I, for one, love them. So I was thrilled to find out that boba drinks had finally arrived on the Peninsula.
Debuting in February, Chopstix is part boba café, part Vietnamese restaurant. Owner Mikey Nguyen is excited to offer the local community something new and different. Boba is popular in cities like San Francisco and L.A. and he says it’s like “bringing the city to the small town.”
The boba drink was invented in Taiwan as bubble tea – sweetened black tea shaken with creamer, creating a top layer of froth much like a latte, hence its name. Add chewy balls made from tapioca and carrageenan (a seaweed extract) to the drink for texture and voilà, boba tea was born.
Boba drinks have come a long way since, as the drinks menu at Chopstix can testify. With about 100 variations in different categories ranging from the snow bubble (a tea-less smoothie) to a slush (think Slurpee) and fruit-flavored milk teas, there is a boba drink with your name on it.
On my first visit, I contemplated the lychee snow bubble ($3.25), fresh watermelon slush ($3.00) and jasmine green milk tea ($2.50) and finally settled on the first.
My lychee snow bubble, like all the drinks, came in a sealed 16-ounce plastic cup. I poked a big fat straw through the top and started slurping the boba from the bottom. The drink itself was not cloyingly sweet, the subtle lychee flavor complemented by soft, plump balls that were cooked just right.
Made to order at the bar (beware the constant whirring of the blender), the snow bubbles and slushes are made from fresh fruit, whereas some of the milk teas contain powdered flavors and creamer and or milk.
For the boba, you can have your drink sans boba or try other chewy tidbits like lychee coconut jelly, mango jelly or sweetened red beans.
Nguyen’s original plan was to sell only boba drinks and self-serve frozen yogurt. But when he saw the space previously occupied by El Cafecito, he had a different vision. “It was a big space, and all the equipment [stove, fryer, pots and pans] was intact,” he explains. “So food, boba, and frozen yogurt all came together.” (Unfortunately, the froyo machines have been out of order for several months.)
To expand beyond the younger crowd boba cafés usually attract, Nguyen decided on an avocado and chocolate color theme for the interior. Accompanied by contemporary wall art and furniture, Chopstix sets itself apart from its hole-in-the-wall counterparts.
The comprehensive menu is appealing, too. Appetizers include the usual Vietnamese culinary suspects like egg rolls, summer rolls and green papaya salad ($5 each).
The classic Vietnamese noodle dish, pho, heads the noodle section (all main dishes are $5.50 each). According to Nguyen, their pho is so popular it usually sells out by 8pm (they close at 9pm) – not surprising since the rich, deeply-flavored broth simmers for four hours from 6 to 10am every morning.
Among the rice dishes, shaken beef – beef slices marinated in fish sauce and garlic and tossed with onions and bell peppers – is another traditional favorite. The beef was tender and each peppery bite was a palate-pleasing mingling of flavors. The lemongrass chicken was also a winner. Citrus-infused chicken pieces lightly coated in chili paste hit my tongue in a sweet and spicy frenzy. The dish was a little spicier than I expected but I still enjoyed it, the fire soothed by spoonfuls of white rice.
The noodle bowls (bún in Vietnamese), however, were a little disappointing. Rice vermicelli noodles are topped with meat or tofu and a cornucopia of fresh vegetables: lettuce, cucumber, sprouts and mint. Next, nuoc cham, a light sauce of fish sauce, sugar and lime juice is mixed in.
Unfortunately, the grilled five-spiced chicken topping had not a hint of five spice and came dripping with a sweet, chili-flecked sauce. The char-grilled “meatballs” were more like sausages, halved and given a turn on the grill. They were tasty and slightly sweet like Chinese sausages; if only they weren’t coated in that sauce.
As a fan of bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches), I was eager to chomp down on one, especially at $3.25 each. Two halves of a soft baguette are spread with a spicy mayo dressing and lined with your choice of filling. Pickled carrot and daikon strips, thinly sliced jalapenos and cilantro sprigs round out the flavors.
My adventurous palate went with the steamed pork. Similar to a country paté, but with a firmer, chewier texture, it is made with shredded pork, garlic and pepper, then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.
With yummy boba drinks, economical prices and tasty dishes, it’s hard to complain about anything, and the servers are friendly enough and eager to please, but they are uninformed about the menu. When I asked one server to describe steamed pork, her voice started off faltering and gradually faded away. Yet another told me a dish was mild, but it was much spicier.
Fortunately this dilemma is easily fixed with a little training, and the big things are all in place. Nguyen has a great little bubble of excitement going in Seaside.