Slide over cupcakes, cronuts and ice cream macaroons — there's a new dessert in town. This one stars coconuts.
All Coco opened its first American outpost last weekend at the Union Market in Tustin. The popular Thai chain has 20 cafes in Bangkok, Jakarta, Seoul and Shanghai. Foodies waited in line for hours at the grand opening.
All menu items are made with young coconuts, and little else. There are coconut slushies. Coconut ice cream served in coconut shells and topped with coconut curls. Coconut soft serve twists. And coconut pudding, swimming with chunks of coconut meat.
And then there is the Snowball.
"This is the product I fell in love with," says Lakeet Ngov, general manager of the U.S. expansion.
Remember how long it took Tom Hanks to break inside a coconut when he was stranded on a tropical island in "Castaway?"
All Coco employs dozens of "coconut artisans" back in Thailand to do the work for you. They remove the shell and husk by hand, revealing a little round coconut that looks like a snowball.
Sealed in a plastic cup, it's ready to have a straw plunged through its soft flesh so you can gulp down the water and then eat the meat like an apple.
Recently, some American grocery stores began selling coconuts, shells stripped and husks pre-cracked so that all you have to do is pop the top off, stick a straw in and drink. But if you want to eat the slippery meat, you have to be willing to dig it out through the hole, which is no easy feat.
"We did all the hard work for you," Ngov says.
It was the Snowball that led him to quit his day job and join the All Coco team.
Ngov was working a tech job in Irvine a couple years ago when he flew to Thailand to visit relatives. One day he went shopping at Bangkok's version of South Coast Plaza and saw a crowd in the food court.
"I went to see what the hype was about," he says. Everyone had Snowballs so he bought one too.
"And it totally blew my mind," he says. "I fell in love. I came back home to my wife and I said, 'Babe, we gotta bring this to the U.S.' "
But, like many of us with grand ideas, he dropped the idea and went back to work. Then, a year later, his cousin called from Thailand to say a chain was looking to bring a new dessert concept to America and did he want to be part of it?
Ngov asked what chain.
"When my cousin said All Coco it felt like destiny, to be honest," Ngov says.
He quit his job and jumped on board.
Ngov thinks Orange County is the perfect place to test the All Coco concept, partly because of its large Asian community, which already employs the coconut in everything from meals to religious ceremonies.
He also noted that Orange County is a proving ground for new food concepts. Residents are always up to try the next big thing, especially if it has a health conscious angle.
All Coco menu items have little or no sugar and if cream is used it's nondairy. And coconuts are naturally packed with minerals like magnesium and potassium.
"Coconuts are Mother Nature's version of a sports energy drink," Ngov says.
A few of the items, like the soft serve twist, are infused with activated charcoal, a detoxifier made from charred coconut husks.
"This is the evolution of the coconut," Ngov says. "A great healthy alternative to the dessert that's out there."
His only challenge, he thinks, is getting people to give it a try.
"We've all had bad coconut experiences," he says.
Most bottled coconut waters on grocery shelves come from mature coconuts, and are often diluted or sweetened.
All Coco uses young green Nam Hom coconuts from organically grown trees on a plantation in a region of Thailand known for its rich soil. The plantation is run by a woman named Waraporn Manusrungsri.
Manusrungsri's family has long been in the coconut exporting business, selling them to places like Whole Foods in 30 different countries.
"You have to select the best size and quality [for grocery stores]," she said last weekend after flying in from Thailand for the grand opening. "But in the bunch [of coconuts] there are different sizes."
Four years ago she came up with the idea of starting a coconut cafe, so that the farmers who work on her plantation could earn money from every one of their coconuts, regardless of shape or size.
The first All Coco cafe opened in Bangkok. Now there are 15 in Thailand, plus a handful more in China, South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Manusrungsri credits the fertile soil on her plantation, which at one time was under water (you can still see seashells in it), for the naturally sweet taste of her product. Nam Hom means "aromatic water" in Thai.
"The Nam Hom coconut has a special flavor profile, between vanilla and almond," Ngov says.
Ngov says he always hoped he would wind up back in the food business, having grown up at his parents' Mission Viejo bakery, Scott's Donut.
"I learned how to crawl there, make those pink donut boxes, bake donuts," he says. "My summer days were spent washing tables, learning the business."
He plans to open his second All Coco shop at Beverly Grove in L.A. later this year. A third will likely be in San Diego.
All Coco is at 2493 Park Ave., Tustin. For more information, call (714) 389-9138.