The sun is a blazing ball burning a hole in the blue Colorado sky. The temperature has lodged somewhere in the mid-90s, and the only nearby hope for relief from the heat streaming off the black asphalt of South Federal Boulevard is an air-conditioned shop that serves icy-cold treats. Bambu Desserts & Drinks is exactly the stop you need, even if you might not realize it at first. The mind-boggling array of teas, smoothies, juices and layered desserts — 87, to be exact — listed on the wall-mounted menu can be a little intimidating to those unfamiliar with Vietnamese refreshments, and some of the ingredients just don’t make sense to those used to American shakes, malts and sodas.
What, for example, is grass jelly? And why are there beans and mashed avocados layered into cups with crushed ice and straws sticking out of the domed tops? Don’t panic; you’ll soon be slurping something delicious.
The first Bambu came to Denver two months ago at 1149 South Federal Boulevard courtesy of franchisee Andrew Truong, a young Denverite who decided he’d rather sell che — the Vietnamese word for these desserts — than real estate. The company itself was founded in 2008 in San Jose, California, by four sisters: Anh, Kelly, Jenny and Julie Nguyen. Bambu has since grown to 51 shops, with 25 more in the works, and is now run by Marc Geman, who started as a chief operating officer brought on to help streamline the business for growth before he purchased the company two years ago. Since Geman is a Denver resident, he’s building Bambu’s flagship store and training center in the Mile High City; on July 8 it will open to the public at 2058 South University Boulevard near the University of Denver.
Until that location opens, Truong’s shop is the only Bambu in town, so if you want to suck boba beads through thick straws or try to brave a durian smoothie, Federal Boulevard is where you’ll need to go. Denver native Ashley Pham, Bambu’s director of store operations, explains that Bambu is kind of like a Starbucks loaded with Vietnamese ingredients for drinks and desserts that can serve as a morning pick-me-up with a big hit of caffeine, act as an afternoon refresher or simply be a sweet after-dinner treat, depending on what you order. But unlike Starbucks (and unlike many other boba shops and pho joints that sell smoothies), each Bambu outpost has its own kitchen where everything is made from scratch from fresh ingredients.
So jellies — like the grass jelly that’s made with aloe, or dark-brick jelly made with coffee — are created at each store using agar agar, a seaweed-based thickener that’s a vegetarian-friendly alternative to gelatin, then sliced into cubes or strips. Coconuts arrive whole and are turned into coconut milk, coconut water and fat slabs of coconut meat that make their way into some of the drinks. Even the durian, that odorous, spiky fruit with a flavor somewhere between cooked onion and egg custard, comes in whole, and Bambu employees seed and portion the flesh before freezing it, which helps soften the fruit for blending into smoothies. According to Pham, the durian, coconut and many other fruits come from Thailand, but you’ll also see such typical Western fruits as honeydew, peach, strawberry and banana.
Since most of the menu is packed with uncommon ingredients and words, a guide could come in handy. If you’re looking for a layered dessert similar to a parfait or sundae (only without the ice cream), Pham recommends the Number 10 — also called the Bambu Favorite — from the che list. Red tapioca pearls, grass jelly and pandan jelly (made with a Southeast Asian herb that tastes like a combination of vanilla, white rice and fresh-baked bread) are layered and then topped off with coconut milk before being capped with a dome of crushed ice. Other che ingredients range from longan (similar to lychee) to red beans, mung beans, jackfruit and palm seeds (which look like milky, translucent jelly beans). Bambu makes its own sweet beans by pressure-cooking beans and then marinating them overnight in a proprietary recipe that turns them from savory to dessert.
If you need a jolt of caffeine, the coffee list will look familiar, with lattes and mochas served hot, cold or blended, along with strong Vietnamese coffee sua da, which gets an extra kick from the slow-drip brewing method and is served on ice with sweetened condensed milk (“sua da” translates to “milk ice”). Tea drinks seem familiar, too, based on either fruit flavors or common leaf-teas like oolong, green and black. Except that those leaf teas are made with sea salt, adding a savory hint to the layer of sweetened condensed milk on top. The blended Thai tea also provides ample caffeine in case you need a wake-up refreshment but don’t care for coffee. Right now, the only food available is a bright-green pandan waffle, which would make a great morning snack with either coffee or tea.
In the section of fresh-pressed juices, the only ingredient that might trip up novices is an herb called pennywort, which Pham says just tastes “healthy, like wheatgrass juice.” And for smoothies, taro root forms the basis of Bambu’s signature drink. Many Vietnamese smoothie shops use sweetened taro powder, which results in an unnaturally purple concoction, but Bambu cooks and mashes whole taro root before blending it into a thick, distinctly flavored beverage; it’s a little earthy and a little sweet — somewhere in the same spectrum as yam or potato.
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Also not to be missed is the fresh-pressed cane juice; whole sections of sugar cane are run through a machine on the counter that slowly flattens the cane and extracts every drop of sweet juice. Yes, it’s pure sugar, but it’s not as sweet as you’d think and has a slightly tart, funky flavor. (The juice would probably make an excellent base for a tropical cocktail.)
Federal Boulevard has no shortage of little shops and noodle bars that serve a standard range of boba smoothies, but most of them use mixes and powders and pre-made boba pearls. Bambu’s dedication to using fresh fruits and raw ingredients to build its colorful, goofy and refreshing desserts and drinks could soon make the chain’s two Denver locations hotter than the sun-scorched parking lot outside.