Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fro-yo Battle Royale in Palo Alto

This weekend I traveled outside my food blogging safety zone of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley and trekked all the way down to Palo Alto’s University Avenue. What would make me travel more than an hour on train to this part of the Peninsula? Frozen yogurt.

Sure, you’re probably thinking there are a variety of new frozen yogurt stores that I can blog about right in San Francisco. In fact, I think there are probably four new fro-yo shops that opened up in the last month that I still haven’t tried. But in the tree-lined blocks of University Avenue is the grand-daddy of all frozen yogurt shops, Red Mango.

When the fro-yo trend started in Los Angeles a few years ago, it was Pinkberry that got people lined up for the tart original flavor or green tea. But many people were quick to point out that Pinkberry was just a knock-off of the Korean chain Red Mango.

Last year, Red Mango came to the United States to reclaim its title as the favorite fro-yo and the U.S. division has been opening stores like crazy. And while Pinkberry has yet to open a store in the Bay Area, Red Mango came to town last month with its first store in Palo Alto. (Other stores are planned for San Jose, Cupertino and San Carlos.)

But this isn’t just a visit to Red Mango. I decided to do a taste-test of Red Mango’s yogurt compared to local favorite Fraiche Yogurt, who could probably be credited with starting the local version of the fro-yo craze when it opened a few years ago and became one of the first frozen-yogurt spots in the Bay Area.

So my first stop was Fraiche, since it’s the closest to the Caltrain Palo Alto station.

Just off University Avenue on Emerson, Fraiche is a cute little shop that sells both fresh and frozen yogurt. It also sells oatmeal and baked goods and serves Blue Bottle Organic Coffee.

Started by two friends, Fraiche’s yogurt is made just like they do it in Europe. But they use local ingredients (Clover organic milk) and it’s made on site. They have a nice selection of fresh fruits along with the crunchy stuff. The sizes include Junior (4 oz.) for $2.95, Regular (6 oz.) for $3.95 and Large (9 oz.) for $5.25. The fro-yo flavors are natural, soy and chocolate. Then there are extra costs for the number of toppings you choose.

Fraiche décor is very Swedish with a lot of white, brown and orange accents. I really liked the wall texture that looked like a wave but probably is supposed to represent the swirls of frozen yogurt. While the décor was contemporary and nice, it did feel a bit tired. Like the brown pillows on the side just seemed well-worn.

I got the natural flavor frozen yogurt in the regular size cup with two toppings: strawberries and blackberries. Total cost was $4.95.

The cup looked like a lot of fro-yo, and it looked milky white. While it was pleasant, it did have a slight icy texture to it. You know what I mean? Like tiny bits of ice granules were mixed in when making the yogurt. The flavor of the fro-yo was subtle, with a very slight vanilla hint but mostly the flavor of milk.

The fruits were incredibly fresh. Strawberries were great since they’re in season, but the blackberries were especially good. They were firm and sweet.

Overall, it was an enjoyable cup of fro-yo and I liked the fact that they used compostible spoons. Service was friendly, and you could probably meet and chat with one of the two owners behind the counter.

I walked a few blocks up University Avenue to Red Mango, which definitely has a more high-profile location right on University Avenue.

This particular Red Mango was opened with a famous partner, Bay Area’s Yul Kwon who won Survivor a few years ago. I’m guessing he’s using some of his $1 million in this business venture. Kwon was supposedly spotted at the store when it opened but now makes only a few rare appearances.

The store has a bright, open feel with a lot of red accents, of course. Red Mango sells only two flavors of fro-yo: original and green tea. It also sells what they call frozen yogurt blenders, which I’m guessing is like a smoothie.

The fro-yo sizes are Small (4 oz.), Medium (8 oz.) and Large (12 oz.). The prices for original flavor are $2.95, $3.95 and $6.45; and the green tea prices are a $1 additional. Toppings are extra.

I ended up getting the medium original fro-yo. They had strawberries but no blackberries, so I couldn’t get an identical match for comparative purposes to Fraiche, so I went with mango and raspberries. My total was $5.20.

The medium is 2 ounces larger than Fraiche, and cost a bit more. But once I started eating the yogurt, I could tell a marked difference. The yogurt was creamier and had no icy texture like Fraiche. And it had the distinctive tart flavor I’ve heard people talk about when describing yogurt.

The mango chunks were especially good because they tasted really fresh and sweet. So overall, it was a really worthwhile cup of fro-yo.

I think there are going to be loyalists who will continue to patronize Fraiche because they’re local and it is made of quality ingredients. Both Fraiche and Red Mango have contemporary, clean environments but I have to say Red Mango wins for texture and taste. I would take a 1-hour train ride just to get a cup (but I’m hoping they’ll eventually open one closer to me). I can’t wait to try the green tea!

Fraiche Yogurt, 644 Emerson St., Palo Alto. PH: 650.566.0055. Open Mon.-Thu., 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Fri., 7 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-11 p.m.; and Sun., 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m.

Red Mango, 429 University Ave., Palo Alto. PH: 650.324.1811. Open Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-12:30 a.m.


Anonymous said...

I made a recent taste test for two new places in the City - Yocup in Rincon Center and YogenFruz in Embarcadero Center. Yocup is fabulous!! YogenFruz is ok, but has the added twist of being able to have fruit or other topping mechanically mixed in.

Single Guy Ben said...

I know, there's too many fro-yo places to try! I'm going to try those places you mentioned, and SoGreen at the Galleria too, and if they're just like Red Mango, then I don't have to make the trip to Palo Alto. But Red Mango was soooo good, I wonder if others can compare. I went to Jubili in Fillmore and it had a icy texture just like Fraiche. So Red Mango is the reigning fro-yo favorite for me so far.

Anonymous said...

i luv froyo as well! jubili used to be one of my faves (i didn't find it icy), but the plain yogurt seemed to have a chalky aftertaste the last two times i went. :(

if u like creamier froyo, u may wanna try yogurt harmony in berkeley ... it's fairly creamy and there's a nice natural tang to it. i haven't been to sogreen, but i heard that it's only so-so.

Jules said...

My conclusion was the exact opposite. Fraiche really tastes like they make it on site, the flavor is subtle and natural, while Red Mango has an artificial additive taste. I wouldn't be surprised if they add something to give it that extra tart flavor. My Fraiche yogurts have never been icy, but I'm sure it also depends on the batch, so I encourage you to try it again. The chocolate is also awesome, and if you want chocolate as a topping they give you shavings from a huge block of belgian chocolate that sits with the toppings.

Anonymous said...

There is supposed to be a Red Mango opening up in Santana Row...where a Ben and Jerrys currently lives. There seems to be some sort of war going on for the space. Santana Row biggies say that no one eats ice cream any more and that folks want a "healthier" choice that's why they want B&J to leave and put in Red Mango. Which is completely ridiculous (the healthier part since 90% of the places at Santana Row wouldn't be considered healthy!). I know there is more to it but I can't find the article. In any event, I may have to make a trip up to Palo Alto to check out the Red Mango there.

Ammie said...

Cheers for the in-depth tasting and the overall vibe commentary.

I liked hearing that Fraiche uses organic ingredients. Jules' comment on the fresh and subtle/natural flavor has me sold. I'll take organic and a little icy over chemical additive flavor for sure.

Single Guy Ben said...

Verena, as for Yogurt Harmony, been there done that. Read my review here. I only tried the green tea and it was a bit gritty, not creamy at all.

Jules, I think you'll agree the flavor between Fraiche and Red Mango is pretty distinct. Like I said, more milky for Fraiche and more tart for Red Mango. So it might be what you prefer. But I still feel Red Mango is creamier, at least on that day.

Mrs. L, I bet Santana Row just feels Ben & Jerry isn't "chic" anymore. You know how they always want the "in" brands.

Saudade, thanks! But just so you know, I think Jules says Red Mango "might" add extra flavor. We don't really know for sure, because on its site they say they use not artificial flavors or preservatives. They also push an all-natural angle, but can't say if they're organic like Fraiche. My point of view is yogurt is generally healthy and the variations on how healthy is just minor claims. Eating fro-yo is a better alternative to ice cream, although I still like Ici or Bi-Rite ice cream now and then. Moderation, you know. ;-)

Anonymous said...

oh oops, i totally forgot about that post ... and i'm actually "dreamsicle" who left a comment.

everyone has their own preferences, so i hope u'll find ur favorite froyo place in the bay area :). rite now i'm doing my own froyo "quest" before i leave the US next month.

Ammie said...

Oh yes, of course I understand it was a chemical taste someone detected, and not an actual indication of chemicals! :) I haven't tried either one, but my experience with organic vs. non and corporate vs. small-batch -- as well as other tasters opinions on what they perceive as chemical-like or off flavors -- is usually what I use as my compass, that's all.

I haven't been able to find Fraiche's ingredient list, but according to Red Mango's website they don't use any artificial flavors (just some fillers).

Anonymous said...

Chef Ben, how old are you? From the way this article is written, I think that you weren't alive during the frozen yogurt craze of the 80's... Pinkberry and Red Mango may be leading the second wave, but they didn't start the trend.

Single Guy Ben said...

OK, anonymous, you got me! I'm 6-years-old. My mommy thinks I'm in nappy time now but I'm really playing on her computer. :)

Seriously, I was in Hawaii in the 80s so I probably missed that "first" fro-yo craze. Was that when all those yucky TCBY's were opening? I generally just reference current trends in my posts.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Red Mango girl at heart, too. I've tried others, and they were good. But ever since I tried Red Mango in LA a year ago, it's been my favorite for exactly the reasons you described: its sublime creamy texture and its memorable, refreshing dance of tartness on the palate. Yum, make mine a double!

Anonymous said...

Red Mango is my favorite of all frozen yogurts. It is delicious blend of sweet and tart, and the texture is creamy smooth. Most others are imitators that don't quite make it. They generally have an icy and bland taste. Red Mango wins hands down. After all it was the original.