Culinary adventures in Asian dessert cafes
Should ceaseless hangovers and clumsy, inebriated behavior ever sour you on the drinking scene, you could do worse than while away an evening in one of SF's many pan-Asian dessert cafes. Cheap prices, pleasant late-night crowds, cultural cachet ... the sole caveat being that, for the neophyte dabbler in casual Asian cuisine, menus can approach this side of incomprehensible. This thought came to me midway through ordering at Tapioca Express (1522 Fillmore, (415) 346-6600. www.tapiocaexpress.com ). A whim had struck me for bubble tea, but in my naiveté, I had come unprepared for what lay ahead. A universe of flavors, forms, and toppings were at my fingertips — it's not unusual for a café to feature more than 80 bubble tea options; variations on form, flavoring, and toppings ("free crystal glass," which to me sounds like a great deal on street drugs). Even ignoring the savories, I was at a loss. But I squashed the disorientation and walked away with an avocado snow, a tapioca-beaded milkshake whose creamy taste will dispel any hesitation you have toward desserts made from nacho ingredients. Sitting with my prize and savoring the peaceful, nonalcoholic hum around me, I knew: I was hooked. I needed more dessert cafe. And thus it began, the adventures of a white girl in the land of taro, grass jelly, and tadpoles.
As if the culinary adventures at Creations Dessert House (5217 Geary, (415) 668-8812, www.creationsdessert.com ) weren't enough food for thought, the ambience, as in other specimens of its genre, strikes an odd balance between coffeehouse and sit-down restaurant. Rather than highlighting its bubble teas, the ginormous menu focuses on hearty snacks, from fast food-like "value boxes" to potato polenta-esque radish cakes topped with fish sauce, and elaborately plated desserts (bowls of cubed fruits and ice cream nestled neatly alongside each other, rather than the helter-skelter mix-up found on most Western plates). The waitress will bring you complimentary hot tea while you ponder your options.
An after-school crowd and a more fast food vibe prevails at Quickly (2116 Irving and various SF locations, (415) 665-3090, www.quicklyusa.com ), a global megachain that provides a gateway to bubble tea from New Zealand to Singapore. I learned about Quickly's ubiquity from the café's helpfully excessive signage, which also alerted me to its "new healthy fashion food" with "fiber green milk tea, black rice, and colis milk." Eschewing the fried mini octopi and hot grass jelly, a plant-based pudding treat, I opted for a saccharine sweet rose bubble tea. And, in a bit of providence, I tried the Hong Kong egg puff, which turned out to be a crispy, waffle-bubble wrap marriage. It's folded into a paper envelope, which fit nicely into my heart. New favorite thing!
Imagine, then, my elation at discovering that this mysterious egg puff was not a solely corporate creation — that, in fact, a sojourn into the Outer Sunset (SF's epicenter of Asian dessert pleasures) will reveal Eggettes (3136 Noriega, (415) 681-8818, www.eggettessf.com ), whose specialty is the puff. Eggettes has the distinction of three flavors; original, chocolate, and honeydew, whose golden-brown crust cedes to a chewy green dough within. Eggettes features the usual phalanx of bubble teas, and for the packs of adolescents usually present, not just free wireless but free computers! Imagine! Should you go, try the rice rolls, flat noodles rolled into delicious chewy nuggets, accompanied by peanut and hoisin sauce.
The challenge of dessert cafes may be what relentlessly pulls us to them — the variety of their wares. After all, the menu at 37 Degrees Dessert Café (1155 Taraval, (415) 566-3887) is a solid 10 pages long, filled with evocative photos to guide your deliberations. Dare you try the Deep Sea, whose striated layers of sweet liquid and "coral jellies" resemble nothing more than the dentist office's saltwater aquarium tank poured into a tall ice cream sundae glass? Will you opt for the crystal rolls at 100% Sweet Café (2512 Clement, (415) 221-1628), small rice paper sachets of sugary goo, fresh strawberries, and mangos that constitute the most difficult and slippery food item to eat ever?
All told, the dessert cafes made a distinct impression on me. Situated at a small table, plied with free hot tea, megalith menu in hand detailing lobster balls, black pearl barley, and cold tofu flakes curdled in a wooden bucket — it's easy to lose a few hours contemplating the fact that one will never, ever know all there is to be eaten under the sun.
But a girl can try. Osmanthus jelly with a side of explosive eggs, please?