N. Campus Student Union Bldg., Buffalo, NY 14260
Web: Jamba Juice
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Amherst Chains Drinks Indian Korean
"The Blackberry Bliss was powerfully fruity, substantially natural, and delicious, except for its extremely high seed content - the cost of using real fruit rather than just juice."
Every two or so months, Buffalo Chow's editors have a "which restaurants is WNY missing" discussion, and three weeks ago, Jamba Juice's name came up on our list. A purveyor of smoothies that can double as full meals, this 729-location chain has built a massive national business on selling styrofoam cups full of frozen sherbet and/or yogurt mixed with fruit and "boosts" - supposedly healthy powdered stuff - and one of us, not the other, has been a fan for years. So imagine our surprise that one week after that discussion, as if a wand had been waved, the first Jamba Juice opened here... at least, sort of. The chain now has a tiny location in the University at Buffalo's Student Union building, next to the Putnam's food court, and though its menu isn't up to snuff with full-fledged stores elsewhere, at least it's a start.
A familiar bright green wall greets students arriving at the Jamba area, as do three menu boards and a countertop collection of brochures and paper menus. We looked over the list of options while standing in line, didn't find any of our old picks on the boards, and grabbed one of the paper menus. "We're actually not serving anything from that menu," the woman at the register told us, "only what's on the boards." "Oh?" we asked, "so there's no way to order a Citrus Squeeze?" "No," she said, "we don't even have the juice for that yet. They're going to start bringing it in soon." At this point, Jamba Juice has been open at U.B. for two weeks, and it's busy enough that it's still trying to juggle all the demand from out-of-town students familiar with the brand - a good place to start when building a presence in a new area. It doesn't have a phone number, yet, and isn't doing much if anything to attract customers from outside U.B.; it doesn't have to.
For the moment, there are 18 different drink choices, each in two or three sizes, including the Blackberry Bliss - a dark purple mix of blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries with raspberry sherbet, plain sorbet, and apple-strawberry juice - and the Strawberries Wild, a light red blend of strawberries, bananas, apple-strawberry juice, frozen yogurt, and ice. A small cup is $3.65, a larger one $4.45, and the biggest $5.25. In California, people drink the big cups instead of eating lunch. At U.B., linebacker-sized guys were ordering them like milkshakes.
The appeal of a Jamba Juice drink varies from person to person. Some people buy them because the cashiers at most locations are programmed to pitch the free "boosts" as healthy, natural supplements - a little guarana, ginseng, and green tea in one, flax and fiber in another, and soy protein in a third - so the drinks must be good for you. A quick check of the nutritional chart shows the regular-sized, 22-ounce Blackberry Bliss at 340 calories, with the big 30-ounce one at 480. The Strawberries Wild one clocks in at 370 or 510 calories, respectively. Good news: that's only 70% as many calories as a comparably-sized Burger King milkshake. Bad news: that's still 70% as many calories as a comparably-sized Burger King milkshake. Those who aren't ordering them for their health and boost benefits are doing so either for the taste, or to have an easy way to drink lunch.
So if you can get past the "healthy" pitch, the drinks range from what one of us would call "not bad" to what the other has an occasional craving for. The Blackberry Bliss was powerfully fruity, substantially natural, and delicious, except for its extremely high seed content - the cost of using real fruit rather than just juice. With fewer seeded ingredients, the Strawberries Wild had a creamier texture and a lighter, sweeter taste. Rush back for it? One of us thinks "maybe," due mostly to the limited menu; the other's a "no" until the menu expands.
But the location is somewhat of a non-starter, at least for those of us who finished our studies at U.B.'s North Campus some years ago. Apart from the Campus Bookstore lot, which technically is for the Bookstore and Commons only, parking isn't exactly convenient for non-students here, and the idea of driving out to U.B. for little more than a smoothie is almost laughable. Jamba has deftly chosen a place where many out-of-towners already familiar with the brand will be walking by, thirsty, but if it's going to become a bigger deal around here, it's going to need an equally smart city or suburban location, most likely indoors where lots of people are already milling around, hungry. We're thinking "Walden Galleria" or "Airport," but then, only if the brand catches on around here. It just might; this is the 22nd location in New York State alone.
Though we stopped by the campus to visit Jamba Juice, we also took the opportunity to check out a couple of restaurants in U.B.'s Commons, which were partially closed on our last visit some months ago. Genuinely exciting for us was a visit to Korean Express (520 Lee Rd., 716.688-6816), a very good and affordably priced little restaurant with Korean and Japanese staples: jap chae, bulgogi, and bibim bob alongside tonkatsu, ramen, and sushi. We grabbed the Dae Ji Bulgogi ($7), a takeout container half-filled with white rice, and half with slightly sweet, spicy red pepper sauce-coated pork and onion slices, as well as an order of six fried Mandu ($2.75) dumplings, essentially Gyoza in Japanese. The Dae Ji Bulgogi was obviously fresh out of the kitchen, properly prepped and cooked to leave the pork tender and a little fatty, and delicious enough that even the semi-pork-adverse one of us liked it. Korean Express's Mandu were also obviously just cooked, crispy outside, and meaty inside, with flour wrappers that one of us liked and the other didn't. Fans of Korean would have no objections.
The bigger surprise we found here was a $3.79 package of Ojing-o Che, a long-time Korean favorite that we haven't had locally in ages. Made from dried strips of squid that have been mixed with sesame seeds and oil, garlic, sugar, and red pepper, this item is typically served cool to the touch and as a "side dish" along with bigger Korean meals; we used to eat containers of it until we realized it was becoming responsible for skin breakouts. Here, as always, it was a delicious little treat, if one we have to limit ourselves on.
We were also pleased if not blown away by a $7, two-item combo we tried at the Bollywood Bistro Indian Cafe next door (520 Lee, 716.689.3986), which maintains a staffed steam counter full of dishes that are ready to be ladled out into containers at lunch time. The Chicken Makhani was very good - warm, buttery, and rich, with big pieces of meat inside - while a Okra and Onion dish was surprisingly tasty, with roasted and lightly spiced vegetables that were apparently very popular; the server kept refilling the container for fellow customers as we waited in line. There was nothing to complain about in the generous included portion of Basmati rice; a very big, fluffy piece of naan was also tossed in with the combo, if nothing particularly special.
Will we be going back? For certain. The Korean food was good and affordable enough to merit another visit, and the Indian was intriguing, too; a Japanese restaurant nearby also caught our attention. Jamba Juice? Possibly. We'll be watching to see whether it ever gets the full menu it really needs to stand out locally; if it does, it might just become an occasional weekend haunt.