Food and Drink

Dining review: Benji’s is a one-stop shop for pastries, bubble tea, chowder and Vietnamese sandwiches

Benji’s Bakery & Café, which opened in South Anchorage to lots of buzz and long lines, defies easy description. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, Benji’s is a different culinary beast.

Put another way, Benji’s has something for everyone. At least, it has something for everyone … in my family. And that’s nothing to scoff at. In our house of four diners, we have two vegetarians (one strict, one not), two carnivores (both strict), two adventurous eaters, two comfort-food cravers, three sweet-tooths and a salt-tooth. In other words, universal enthusiasm for a single eatery is rare in the Severin household. Benji’s Bakery & Café is a new entry on a very short list.

According to my older daughter, Benji’s is her new favorite boba spot. Boba, for the uninitiated, is an infinitely customizable cold tea drink garnished with translucent tapioca pearls. Or you can opt for “popping” boba, which are little juice-filled bubbles that add flavor and, frankly, silliness to your drink. The options are a bit dizzying, but my daughter ordered the coconut taro milk tea ($5.75) with knowledgeable confidence.

Confession: I do not love milk tea boba. I have been known to describe it as “What is a milkshake, but slimy?” But I tasted hers and had to agree that it was rich, creamy and coconutty — if, decidedly, not for me.

What was for me, however, was my younger daughter’s beverage choice, a signature pomegranate iced tea ($5.95) with whole raspberries and mango-flavored popping boba. This drink was light, refreshing and not overly sweet. And there’s something undeniably fun about drinking out of a straw fat enough to suck up an entire raspberry.

According to my younger daughter, Benji’s is her new favorite bakery.

A conscientiously healthy eater, she maintains that if you’re going to indulge, you should make it count. And Benji’s is bursting with treats that throw caloric caution to the winds. On our first visit we decided to join forces and order a variety of pastries and share them all. We opted for a fruit Danish ($4.25), a pumpkin spice croissant ($6.25) and two cruffins (half muffin, half croissant, $5.75 each), one cookies-and-cream and one ube-flavored.

The Danish — the pastry equivalent of the grown-up in the room — was simple and subdued, with a pleasingly buttery crust and a topping of juicy, fresh berries.

But the cruffins are the house specialty, and it’s easy to see why. These puffy little bouffant-like pastries are taller than they are wide, and each is topped with a little edible accessory — half an Oreo cookie, say, or a sprinkling of Fruity Pebbles. They have all of the buttery flakiness of a croissant (without, perhaps, its dignity) and all the creamy fun of a cupcake. And despite the bells and whistles, this isn’t a heavy pastry. It’s a fluffy, airy creation and a textural dream. The cookies and cream cruffin delivered an uncomplicated and comforting sweetness, while the ube-flavored cruffin brought a slightly subtle earthiness to each bite. With a wide variety of flavors — Kit Kat, green tea, taro, Nutella and maple-bacon, to name a few — if there’s not a flavor that tempts you, then you’re just being contrary.

The final candidate in our taste test was the pumpkin spice croissant. Visually, with its black and orange stripes, and toasted meringue topping, it was striking and a bit bizarre. “It looks like Tigger,” observed one daughter. But this Franken-pastry delivered on substance as well as style, with a mildly spicy flavor profile, perfectly silky pastry cream and fluffy texture.

As for me, I’ve found a new favorite sandwich shop. Drawn to the menu of banh mi sandwiches, which range from chicken and pork varieties to the more traditional pâté filling, I opted for the roast pork banh mi ($9) and, on the side, a cup of New England clam chowder ($6.50). Because Benji’s serves boba, pastry bagels, and … clam chowder. Because, why not?

The sandwich was a perfectly executed classic. The pork was smoky and flavorful; the vegetables were bright and acidic, with just a touch of heat. The cilantro added a floral, fresh and aromatic note, and the baguette was perfect — soft enough to bite through, with a crispy, crackly crust.

The chowder — which as a New England-o-phile, I initially eyed with suspicion — was everything chowder should be. Thick, creamy and briny, this soup was loaded with clams and potatoes. It was one of the first wintry days of the year, and this soup made me look forward to more of them. Working my way through the variety of Benji’s chowders seems like an excellent winter project.

This eclectic meal was a lot to take in. Roasted pork, pickled vegetables, pastry cream, popping boba, clams and berry tarts made for a somewhat bewildering flavor profile. So after ruminating a day or two, I decided to reset my palate. I went back into Benji’s and ordered a single plain croissant. It was lovely. Buttery and decadent, yet light and airy. The box that contained it felt empty. I ate the whole thing without so much as a swipe of butter or jam. So while I welcome the toppings and fillings, I’m glad to say that they are a playful enhancement and not a disguise.

Is Benji’s a patisserie? Boba parlor? Chowder house? Sandwich shop? I don’ t care for labels. And with a cruffin in one hand and a banh mi in the other, I’m guessing you won’t either.

Benji’s Bakery & Café

901 E. Dimond Blvd. Unit C; 907-522-3654

Monday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m.

Tuesday: Closed

Wednesday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m.

Sunday: 12-8 p.m.