One thing you must never say at Pho Bac Hoa Viet restaurant is that the concept of an avocado shake is weird.
“No, it’s awesome,” corrects Nicole Tran, a second-generation member of the family that operates Hoa Viet locations from West Sacramento to Placerville. “It’s my favorite shake.”
Avocado shakes are easy to find in Vietnamese restaurants that specialize in pho soups or banh mi sandwiches. It’s usually tucked into a traditional menu’s long list of beverages, including jackfruit, durian, strawberry and mocha shakes and drinks with pearl tapioca.
The green color at first alarms – is that spinach in there? Will the texture have the avocado’s slippery feel? Will it taste like guacamole or will it really be sweet?
I first tried one sight-unseen more than a decade ago at Saigon on Stockton Boulevard. When it arrived looking like an American milkshake in a tall fluted soda glass with whipped cream and a cherry on top, I knew I was sizing up a new friend. I was with friends who thought I was about to eat a scorpion.
Because the avocado has less water than other fruits used in shakes, such as berries or pineapple, its flesh contributed more to the shake’s silken rich texture than a discernible avocado flavor. The straw was helpfully fat so the thick shake could be sucked upwards without obstruction. There was a brief signal of avocado, then a refreshing blast of sweetness and finally a soothing hit of something very cold. I’ve been addicted ever since.
The avocado’s timeline with a likely origin in Mexico followed by early cultivation in Central and South America long before Columbus probably explains why we on this continent are comfortable using avocados with its old New World friend, the tomato, and other savory ingredients – onion, garlic, cilantro, chili and on to mayonnaise and salad dressing. From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, the French colonized Vietnam and introduced the avocado. That’s when this habit started:
Pour sweetened condensed milk into the pitted hollow of an avocado half and eat out of hand with a spoon.
Nguyen Pham of Sunh Fish is an avocado shake lover. He says that when he was a kid, his dad would mix avocado, sugar, milk and small ice cubes and eat it out of a bowl, which isn’t much of a stretch to putting the same concoction in a blender.
The avocado-sugar marriage is not as improbable a flavor combination as you might think. In Brazil, where avocados grow to the size of human infants, the avocado shake also gets chocolate syrup. In Hawaii, avocados are sweetened with sugar and combined with island pineapple, orange, grapefruit and bananas. In Java, there’s a dessert of avocado mixed with sugar and black coffee.
Tran of Hoa Viet can’t say for sure why the avocado and sugar became the new normal in Vietnam. “Vietnamese people love sugar,” she says. “Sugar just seems right.” She prefers that her staff make Hoa Viet shakes a tad less sweet. “Too much sugar takes away from the avocado flavor.”
One thing is certain. Because of its tannin content, avocado becomes bitter if cooked. So eating it raw and cold is reason enough to order an avocado shake.
Oh, about the calories. “It’s fattening,” says Tran. “But it’s no problem. I drink it once in a while because it tastes even better than if I drink it too often.”
Huong Lon Banh Mi in Sacramento’s Little Saigon has avocado shakes to go. You can also find avocado shakes at just about any stop with tapioca pearl drinks, but order it without the pearls.
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.