Sweet and refreshing, this cult-favorite drink is finally catching on in the Bay Area (2023)

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Food // Restaurants

Elena Kadvany

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Sweet and refreshing, this cult-favorite drink is finally catching on in the Bay Area (13)
Sweet and refreshing, this cult-favorite drink is finally catching on in the Bay Area (14)

Growing up in a Vietnamese family in Stockton, Phong Nguyen’s childhood was filled with an essential ingredient: sugarcane.

His mother would buy large, bamboo-like stalks of fresh sugarcane, peel off their fibrous outer layer and cube them up for the kids. Nguyen would chew and chew on the hunks, sucking out the plant’s sweet juice until his teeth chipped. Fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, meanwhile, was a luxury, a rare treat found only in cities with large Vietnamese populations like Sacramento and San Jose.

Nguyen and a friend, A.T. Nguyen, opened Sugarcane HQ in San Bruno in late 2022, one of the few shops in the Bay Area dedicated to fresh-pressed sugarcane juice. Despite its cult-like stature in Southeast Asian cultures, beloved for its subtly sweet flavor and natural health benefits, fresh sugarcane juice hasn’t become a mainstream drink in the U.S. — and has been hard to find in the Bay Area. Nguyen and a handful of other owners hope to change that.

Sweet and refreshing, this cult-favorite drink is finally catching on in the Bay Area (15)

Newcomers like Sugarcane HQ; Suga Bros, a new ghost kitchen operation in San Francisco; and Oakland’s Sugar Mama Sugarcane are joining standbys like Nước Mía Ninh Kiều inside the Grand Century Mall in San Jose. There’s almost always a line for refreshing drinks mixed with strawberry, calamansi and chia seeds at Pure Cane Juice Co.’s stand at the Outer Sunset Farmers Market in San Francisco on Sundays. At San Francisco’s Alemany Farmers Market, you’ll sometimes see a farmer whacking 6-foot-tall sugarcane stalks into pieces for sale.

Buzzy Bay Area restaurants, too, are clamoring for sweet sugarcane. Oakland’s popular Lion Dance Cafe will soon serve a cocktail with juicefrom Sugarcane HQ, while the owners of Gao Viet Kitchen in San Mateo and San Francisco and Ben Tre Restaurant in South San Francisco pour Suga Bros’ juice with calamansi or kumquat. Diners can also order sugarcane juice at Pho de Nguyen, Nguyen’s next-door restaurant in San Bruno.

Many sugarcane devotees who grew up on the deeply nostalgic drink are delighted to find it more widely available in the Bay Area.

“The response we’ve been getting is, ‘I haven’t had sugarcane since I was a kid in (my) home country,’” Nguyen said.

Sweet and refreshing, this cult-favorite drink is finally catching on in the Bay Area (16)

Sugarcane is technically a grass that grows all over the world, from Vietnam and Brazil to Pakistan (which declared sugarcane juice the country’s national drink in 2019). It’s beloved for its sweet, grassy flavor – like a more concentrated, robust coconut water – and nutritional benefits. It contains calcium, iron and vitamin C, with no added sugar. Many believe it aids digestion and boosts immunity. Many Bay Area shops source sugarcane from farms in Vietnam, which reportedly produced 11 million metric tons of the crop in 2021.

These businesses make the juice fresh to order, feeding sugarcane stalks through a loud, industrial machine to extract the juice. It’s served plain, in its purest state, or enhanced by the flavor of fruit juices like tart calamansi or sweet passion fruit. Locally, you can find it mixed with kumquat, carrot, preserved plums or ginger. Because it’s the Bay Area, many shops come up with seasonal mixtures: blood orange and cara cara oranges in the winter; plump strawberries from Watsonville’s Rodriguez Farms in the summer.

While many lean classic, some of the businesses’ menus are starting to resemble the scope and variety of a boba shop. Sugar Mama mixes sugarcane with matcha or pandan tea; Pure Cane incorporates textural elements, including chia and basil seeds that pop in your mouth like miniature grapes. The owners of Sugarcane HQ had the genius idea to mix the sugarcane with Vietnamese coffee, the bitterness balanced by sugarcane’s alluring sweetness.

Sweet and refreshing, this cult-favorite drink is finally catching on in the Bay Area (17)

Patrick Nguyen had only tried the drink in Vietnam before starting Suga Bros with friend Harry Trinh. He has fond memories of stopping at one of the many street carts piled high with sugarcane. He’d watch the vendor press it through a hand-cranked machine, and sip the sweet juice through a straw tucked into a small plastic bag. Trinh, meanwhile, remembers driving from his family’s home in San Francisco to San Jose for cartons of fresh juice at Nước Mía Ninh Kiều, which to him was “the pioneer of sugarcane juice in the Bay Area.”

Tired of the 9-to-5 grind of tech jobs, the two friends wanted to start their own business last year. Not unlike the Hewlett-Packard origin story, they started by selling sugarcane juice out of Trinh’s garage, then on Instagram, and then at the massively popular Foodieland food festivals. They opened their first location inside a San Francisco ghost kitchen in October and are now working on the business full time.

There may be a reason brick-and-mortar businesses devoted to fresh sugarcane have remained a rarity in the Bay Area. Making the fresh-pressed juice is an incredibly labor-intensive process that requires expensive machinery and lots of storage. (Suga Bros imports 44-pound boxes of sugarcane from Vietnam, and then must break down the unwieldy stalks.) A high volume of sales is needed to justify the region’s high rents and costs, said Phong Nguyen, who happened to own the space next-door to his restaurant and needed a use for it. While large Vietnamese communities familiar with sugarcane in San Jose and Sacramento can keep such businesses afloat, he said, it’s been harder on the Peninsula.

Sweet and refreshing, this cult-favorite drink is finally catching on in the Bay Area (18)

But word of mouth has steadily brought in more customers to Sugarcane HQ, who often stock up on gallon jugs of the juice to drink at home, Phong Nguyen said. (His household goes through a gallon a night.) They recently invested in a larger machine to keep up with demand.

The Suga Bros owners said their drinks are often confused with bubble tea. While they find it annoying, it can be a hopeful comparison: another cherished Asian drink that’s become its own culture in the United States.

Where to find fresh sugarcane juice in the Bay Area

Suga Bros: 60 Morris St., San Francisco. (Also served at Gao Viet Kitchen in San Mateo and San Francisco and Ben Tre in South San Francisco.) sugabros.com

Sugarcane HQ: 586a San Mateo Ave., San Bruno. (Also served at Pho de Nguyen next door.) sugarcanehq.com

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Sugar Mama Sugarcane: 1014 Fruitvale Ave., Oakland. (Also served at Sizzling Lunch locations in the Bay Area.) sugarmamasugarcane.com

Nước Mía Ninh Kiều: 1111 Story Road, #1017, San Jose. 408-217-8270

Nước Mía Bạch Đằng: 1818 Tully Road, Suite 128, San Jose. bach-dang.business.site

Pure Cane Juice Co.: Outer Sunset Farmers Market, 37th Avenue between Ortega and Quintara streets on Sundays, 9 a.m.- 2 p.m. instagram.com/purecane_juice

Elena Kadvany is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: elena.kadvany@sfchronicle.com

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