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DISH: SAVOR Cassava Cafe
DISH: Weekly Dining Guide, Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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I recently spent a morning at the Gold Coast spot Cassava Cafe ( 1211 N. LaSalle St.; )—and was pretty much alone, save for the cheerful worker behind the counter.

This was a shame, because this is an eatery that's much more than an eatery. Sure, there are bites ranging from pastries to a tasty grilled-cheese sandwich that has cheese on the outside of the bread as well. And there are Metropolis Coffee, coconut water ( the real thing—not the chemical-filled concoctions one buys at many U.S. grocery stores ) and its very popular boba tea ( with a complete description of that concoction on the cafe's website ). However, there is a study/work/relaxation area, board/card games ( Apples to Apples, and Connect Four, for example ) and even a foosball table. The atmosphere is tranquil—down to the music, which can include orchestral versions of songs like Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi," Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Co-owner Vung Nguyen told Savor that Cassava ( which opened in August ) came about because "most of the bubble-tea places are on Argyle [Street] or in Chinatown—and I live two blocks from here. When I went to Occidental College, there were bubble-tea places everywhere; I went to one and it was my study [place]." She took a circuitous route to becoming a cafe owner, having been a biology major, but would like to see the cafe expand to the point where she doesn't have to always be there. ( Cassava typically is open 6:30 a.m.-12 a.m., seven days a week. )

The menu, which has a mix of Asian and U.S. items, "reflects who I am," Nguyen said. "Bubble tea is from Taiwan, the chai is from India, the shaved ice is from Korea, there's coffee from Vietnam and then there are the American things. I feel the menu reflects who I am because I left Vietnam when I was 3 years old to go to Hong Kong, where I lived for six years. Then I moved back to Vietnam for a year or two, and then I moved to the U.S. Then, I got the chance to travel and try the cuisines of different countries."

As for the games, "our generation loves a balance of work of fun," said Nguyen, who's in her 20s. After studying for three or four hours straight, it's good to play something. You can do your own thing [there are books here as well], but you can interact with others as well."

Regarding the cafe's name, it's traced back to the signature tea. "The popping boba tea—back then, there were small black pearls that are made of tapioca flour, which comes from the cassava root," Nguyen said.

Nguyen said the best thing about owning Cassava is that "I get to do whatever I want. I decorated this entire space from scratch—the color scheme, plants, paintings and everything else express my personality. We even built the tables ourselves. [Also,] our menu items are made from scratch, and I buy organic. I'm very conscious of what I put in my body." As for the worst thing, she said it's "pushing your product out there," noting that some people are taken aback by how different her items are, down to the price ( especially compared to Chinatown ). However, this writer can attest that the menu offerings are not overpriced for the Gold Coast.

"I don't really go clubbing or even drink," Nguyen added in conclusion. "I want to offer an alternative to [that scene], while offering a sense of community."

One thing, though: I hope Nguyen puts the cafe's menu online. That way, people can see the various items this charming spot has to offer.

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