Call it dessert, art-in-a-cup or a layered drink with ballast.
However you describe it, Vietnamese chè just got much more popular in Tacoma with the opening this week of drink-and-dessert cafe Bambu in the Lincoln neighborhood.
The Vietnamese term chè is a catch-all category for desserts.
At Bambu, the list of chè covers broad territory. They’re also more elaborate than chè found at neighboring Vietnamese cafes and grocery stores in the Lincoln District.
Bambu’s visually striking chè desserts are something like the complicated cousins of boba tea, but rather than just milk tea and chewy tapioca, chè layers include beans, fruit, jelly and a finish of coconut milk and shaved ice. For a better framework, look to Filipino halo-halo as a much closer dessert relative.
If chè is unfamiliar territory, peruse the display at the register. It will show visual samples of the various beans, jellies and boba.
Ingredient choices are broad. There’s fresh young coconut and more exotic lychee, longan and jackfruit. Yellow or green mung beans, plus sweetened red beans. Jiggly pandan jellies — made by hand on site — yield a chewy tug of resistance along with red tapioca and other squishy jellies and jiggly basil seeds. Boba pearls provide surprising juicy bursts of flavor. Textural dissonance is key to the drinks.
Most drinks also come with coconut milk or juice and a fluffy snowball of shaved ice on top. Chè here is served in a plastic cup. Some are easy to tackle with a straw, but you’re better off with a spoon.
Tacoma’s Bambu is an outpost of a small California-based chain with multiple King County locations. This is the first in Pierce County.
If there’s one thing for which Bambu is known, it’s pandan jelly. Making the jelly is so involved that Tacoma Bambu’s owner, Quoc “Michael” Huynh, will close one day a week to make the chewy jelly from scratch. Eventually, he hopes to use commercial kitchen space for jelly making, but for now, the one-day-a-week closure is what he’ll do.
This is a first restaurant for Huynh, who operates the cafe with relatives. Tacoma’s Bambu carries the same basic menu as the King County locations but adds items not found on those menus, such as pandan waffles, exotic ice cream flavors and macaron cookies.
Here are first-bite notes. It’s this paper’s policy to avoid criticism of food and service during a restaurant’s first month.
The menu: In addition to 15 chè ($4.95 to $6.25), there’s also a list of milk teas ($3.95), smoothies ($4.95), yogurt drinks ($5.50), juices ($4.95), fresh fruit and blended teas ($4.50) and a list of espresso and Vietnamese coffee ($3.75 to $4.50). Snacks include macaron cookies ($2), pandan waffles ($4 to $7), mochi cupcakes ($1). Frozen desserts include ice cream ($4 to $5.50) and snow ice desserts ($5.95 to $7.45).
The dining room: Photos explaining drink ingredients handily double as artwork in the cute cafe with vibrant green walls and modern finishes. Seating for about 20 among 5 tables and bar seating at the windows.
Try these chè: Fruit addict ($5.50) with a base of coconut milk layered with wide, long slices of fresh coconut, squishy pieces of lychee fruit (it has the texture of a grape and tastes faintly of strawberries), sweetened swaths of jackfruit, chewy pandan jelly and red tapioca. The smashed avocado ($5.50) held more of a smoothie texture with chunky pieces of avocado surrounded by chewy jelly, plus a bit of coconut milk. Both were topped with a fluffy orb of ice.
For you rogue diners: A build-your-own chè option for customizing ($5.50 to $6.25).
Bambu Desserts & Drinks
Where: 773 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-212-3882; facebook.com/bambutacoma.