Thanks to antioxidant powers, the acai berry caught a ride on the healthy eating wave. Discovered in Brazil and adopted by the surfing community in Hawaii, the berry is sold in Anchorage at Acai (pronounced ah-sigh-e) Alaska. Restaurant owners CJ and Julia Von Imhof, along with business partners Mike and Sharlene Wheeler, are focused on more than just a trend.
The restaurant is deeply rooted in a holistic, vegan approach to food. Since opening January 2010, it has offered a stripped-down menu of fresh smoothies and bowls heaped with a frozen puree acai base and swirled with fruits, nuts and other garnishes.
The acai berry has been dubbed a super food because it's packed with nutrients, antioxidants, vitamins and fiber. Some believe it can help combat free radicals, fight cancer, improve mental clarity and offer a natural energy boost.
The Von Imhofs had their first taste of acai while living in Hawaii. They discovered a relief in back pain and digestive problems. Inspired by its health benefits, the couple created their own acai bowls and sold them to Alaska coffee shops and grocery stores. After the products became popular, the couple decided to open their shop on Dimond Boulevard.
A distinctly Hawaiian influence was evident on my first visit; I was instantly transported to a beachfront surf shack. The wait staff was mellow and conversational, and the space is freckled with knick-knacks, lamps, purses and scarves for sale.
The menu scrawled across a chalkboard on the wall offers a variety of bowls made with the base blend (acai, banana, strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and marionberry) or the nutty heaven blend (acai, banana, strawberry, peanut butter and almond milk).
I ordered the keiki size (Hawaiian for "the little one") bonzai bowl ($6.25). It has the original base blend mixed with chunks of kiwi and spirulina. Scattered on top of the deep plum-colored base were chocolate-covered pomegranate and macadamia nuts, along with a drizzle of honey. It's a tantalizing fusion of fresh and sweet. If I hadn't known better, I would have sworn I was eating a sorbet dessert.
I also ordered the keiki size pipeline bowl ($5.25). It contained the nutty heaven base swirled with hemp seeds, banana, granola, raisins, almonds and honey. The base was denser than the original blend and the peanut butter flavoring drowned out some of the fruit flavor. I was still pleasantly surprised to find it tasted more like dessert than health food.
On my second visit, I opted for a couple of smoothies. The 12-ounce borealis berry smoothie ($4.75) is mixed with acai, blueberry, marionberry, blackberry, raspberry and apple. Because it contains no dairy, the fruit flavor is delightfully intense, but still not quite as memorable as the bowls. My 12-ounce fireweed smoothie ($4.75) contained a mixture of acerola (a cherry-like fruit), strawberry, banana, and apple. It was slightly denser because of the banana -- and equally delicious.
Aside from the smoothies and acai bowls, the restaurant also serves wraps and a range of healthy beverages such as wheatgrass shots. The Von Imhofs are looking to add to the menu and have considered soups and acai popsicles. Central to the restaurant's theme is ingredients that are natural, raw and contain no additives, dairy or meat.
"Whenever we come up with potential new menu items, we have meetings to discuss whether this is really healthy for us and our customers," CJ Von lmhof said.
Reinforcing the focus on health, the restaurant hosts speakers who discuss health topics, holistic approaches and nutrition. Live music and art are part of First Friday events.
If you're looking for something good for your body that will leave your taste buds equally satisfied, give Acai Alaska a try.
Focus on health