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Fresh sugarcane juice is finally catching on in the Bay Area

Growing up in a Vietnamese family in Stockton, Phong Nguyen’s childhood was filled with one essential ingredient: sugar cane.

His mother would buy large bamboo-like stalks of fresh sugarcane, peel off their fibrous outer layer and dice them for the children. Nguyen chewed and chewed the pieces, sucking the sweet juice of the plant until his teeth chipped. Freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, meanwhile, was a luxury, a rare treat found only in cities with large Vietnamese populations like Sacramento and San Jose.


Nguyen and a friend, AT Nguyen, opened Sugarcane HQ in San Bruno in late 2022, one of the few stores in the Bay Area dedicated to freshly squeezed sugarcane juice. Despite its cult stature in Southeast Asian cultures, beloved for its subtly sweet flavor and natural health benefits, fresh sugar cane juice has not become a mainstream beverage in the United States and has been hard to find. in the Bay Area. Nguyen and a handful of other owners hope to change that.

AT Nguyen takes raw sugar cane stalks to feed them into the press at the sugar cane headquarters in San Bruno.

Don Feria/Special for the news

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Newcomers like Sugarcane HQ; Suga Bros, a new ghost kitchen operation in San Francisco; and Oakland’s Sugar Mama Sugarcane are joining booths like Nước Mía Ninh Kiều inside the Grand Century Mall in San Jose. There’s almost always a line for refreshing mixed drinks with strawberry, calamansi, and chia seeds at the Pure Cane Juice Co. booth at San Francisco’s Outer Sunset Farmers Market on Sundays. At San Francisco’s Alemany Farmers Market, you’ll sometimes see a farmer tearing apart 6-foot-tall sugar cane stalks for sale.
Buzzy Bay Area restaurants are also clamoring for the sweet sugar cane. Oakland’s famed Lion Dance Cafe will soon be serving a cocktail with Sugarcane HQ juice, while the owners of Gao Viet Kitchen in San Mateo and San Francisco and Ben Tre Restaurant in Millbrae pour Suga Bros juice with calamansi or kumquats. Diners can also order sugarcane juice at Pho de Nguyen, Nguyen’s next-door restaurant in San Bruno.

Many sugarcane devotees who grew up with the deeply nostalgic beverage are pleased to find it more widely available in the Bay Area.
“The answer we’re getting is, ‘I haven’t eaten sugar cane since I was a child in (my) home country,’” Nguyen said.

AT Nguyen talks to customers at Sugarcane HQ in San Bruno, a new store dedicated to fresh sugarcane juice.
AT Nguyen talks to customers at Sugarcane HQ in San Bruno, a new store dedicated to fresh sugarcane juice.

Don Feria/Special for the news

Sugarcane is technically a grass that grows all over the world, from Vietnam and Brazil to Pakistan (which declared sugarcane juice the country’s national drink in 2019). It’s loved for its sweet, herbaceous flavor — like a more concentrated, robust coconut water — and nutritional benefits. Contains calcium, iron and vitamin C, with no added sugar. Many believe it aids digestion and boosts immunity. Many Bay Area stores source sugarcane from farms in Vietnam, which reportedly produced 11 million tons of the crop in 2021.
These companies make the fresh juice to order, feeding the sugar cane stalks through a noisy industrial machine to extract the juice. It is served smooth, in its pure state, or enhanced by the flavor of fruit juices such as calamansi tart or sweet passion fruit. Locally it can be found mixed with kumquat, carrot, preserved plums or ginger. Because it’s the Bay Area, many stores carry seasonal blends: blood oranges and cara cara oranges in the winter; plump strawberries at Watsonville’s Rodriguez Farms in the summer.
While many lean classics, some of the companies’ menus are starting to resemble the scope and variety of a boba shop. Sugar Mama mixes sugarcane with matcha or pandan tea; Pure Cane incorporates textural elements, including chia seeds and basil that pop into your mouth like miniature grapes. The owners of Sugarcane HQ came up with the ingenious idea of ​​blending sugarcane with Vietnamese coffee, the bitterness balanced by the sugarcane’s alluring sweetness.

AT Nguyen prepares coffee to mix with freshly squeezed sugarcane juice at the Sugarcane headquarters in San Bruno.
AT Nguyen prepares coffee to mix with freshly squeezed sugarcane juice at the Sugarcane headquarters in San Bruno.

Don Feria/Special for the news

Patrick Nguyen had only tried the drink in Vietnam before founding Suga Bros with friend Harry Trinh. He has fond memories of stopping in one of the many carts overflowing with sugar cane. He watched the vendor push it through a hand-cranked machine and sip the sweet juice through a straw tucked into a small plastic bag. Trinh, meanwhile, recalls driving from his family’s San Francisco home to San Jose for cartons of fresh juice at Nước Mía Ninh Kiều, which to him was “the pioneer of sugarcane juice in the Bay Area.”

Tired of the 9 to 5 technical jobs, the two friends wanted to start their own business last year. Not unlike Hewlett-Packard’s origin story, they started by selling sugar cane juice from Trinh’s garage, then on Instagram, and then at the wildly popular Foodieland food festivals. They opened their first location inside a San Francisco ghost kitchen in October and are now working the business full-time.
There may be a reason fresh sugar cane businesses have remained a rarity in the Bay Area. Making freshly squeezed juice is an incredibly labor-intensive process that requires expensive machinery and lots of storage space. (Suga Bros. imports 44-pound boxes of sugarcane from Vietnam, and then has to cut down the bulky stalks.) A high volume of sales is needed to justify the region’s high rents and costs, said Phong Nguyen, who was the owner of the space next -door to his restaurant and needed a use for it. While large Vietnamese communities familiar with sugarcane in San Jose and Sacramento may keep those businesses afloat, he said, it has been more difficult on the peninsula.

Fresh, sweet sugarcane juice drops into a cup at the sugarcane headquarters in San Bruno.
Fresh, sweet sugarcane juice drops into a cup at the sugarcane headquarters in San Bruno.

Don Feria/Special for the news

But word of mouth has steadily brought more customers to the sugar cane headquarters, who often stock up on liter jugs of juice to drink at home, Phong Nguyen said. (His family consumes a gallon a night.) They recently invested in a bigger car to keep up with demand.


The owners of Suga Bros have said their drinks are often confused with bubble tea. Although they find it annoying, it can be a promising comparison: another beloved Asian beverage that has become its own culture in the United States.

Where to find fresh sugar cane juice in the Bay Area

Suga Bros: 60 Morris Street, San Francisco. (Also served by Gao Viet Kitchen in San Mateo and San Francisco and Ben Tre in Millbrae.) sugabros.com
Sugar Cane Headquarters: Viale San Mateo 586a, San Bruno. (Also served at Pho de Nguyen next door.) sugarcanehq.com
Sugar Mama Sugar cane: 1014 Fruitvale Avenue, Oakland. (Also served at Sizzling Lunch locations in the Bay Area.) sugarmamasugarcane.com
Ninh Kieu sugarcane juice: 1111 Story Road, #1017, San Jose. 408-217-8270
Bach Dang sugarcane juice: 1818 Tully Road, Suite 128, San Jose. bach-dang.business.site
Pure Cane Juice Co.: Outer Sunset Farmers Market, 37th Avenue between Ortega and Quintara Streets on Sundays, 9am to 2pm instagram.com/purecane_juice

Elena Kadvany is a writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]