Building a Better Berry

Pique your interest? Photo by Jonathan Ho

It's hard to pinpoint when it started exactly, but by the time the Los Angeles Times published its story last year, the Pinkberry frozen-yogurt phenomenon had reached a deafening crescendo. Words like "Crackberry" were being thrown around (to convey its apparent addictiveness), along with stories of lines longer than a Star Wars movie premiere.

Before long came the attack of the clones—Kiwiberry and Roseberry—vying for a piece of the action. And then came the inevitable backlash. "Too expensive," some said of its hefty $5 price tag. "What's the big deal?" asked others. Then there were those pesky consumer lawsuits alleging that what Pinkberry sold as yogurt wasn't technically yogurt. The saga had it all: enviable entrepreneurial success, fanaticism, possible trademark infringement and alleged misrepresentation. The Times actually had lab tests performed on the stuff.

But while Pinkberry had all of LA in a tizzy, Orange County was left to wonder what the hoopla was all about. After all, Costco and the Golden Spoon chain has sold frozen yogurt here for years—and without so much as a peep.

The difference, its devotees will point out, is in the taste, texture and toppings. True to the definition of yogurt as a cultured dairy product, Pinkberry's product is tangy and tart. Only two flavors are offered: plain and green tea, both holdovers from Korea, where the treat originated. Texture-wise, it's icier than ice cream, but creamier than sorbet. Then there are the toppings: fresh fruit instead of the typical syrup-laden preserves, as well as such brand-name cereals as Cocoa Puffs and Fruity Pebbles. The yogurt (should that have an asterisk now?) is also nonfat and harbors only 25 calories per ounce.

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Pinkberry now has plans in the works to open a few franchises in OC (at the Irvine Spectrum and Huntington Beach's Bella Terra), but it may already be too late. A homegrown frozen-yogurt shop called Yogurtland has already built up its own cultish following, enjoying Pinkberry-like success with long lines to match.

Yogurtland offers the same tart yogurt flavors, fresh fruit toppings and low calorie count, but that's where the similarities end. The yogurt here is self-served, priced by weight (30 cents per ounce), and poured from soft-serve machines, each with two flavor spigots (a middle spout does a combo of the two). Although Yogurtland did not pioneer the self-serve-yogurt concept, judging by the lines, it seems to have cornered the market. The customer can pump out as much of the frozen confection as their sweet tooth desires and their wallet allows. In addition to the tart flavors popularized by Pinkberry, the Americanized ice-creamy variety of fro-yo is also offered.

The newest Yogurtland opened recently in Irvine, and it looks as cute as any of the Pinkberries. The space is designed with a pop-Asian chic and feminine aesthetic—as if Hello Kitty threw up on a Jamba Juice. Bright pastels and accent lighting cover areas that aren't occupied by oversized, softly focused glamour shots of fruit.

The furnishings are by Ikea, and in the middle of the room, vertical panes of stenciled glass grow out of the floor and into the ceiling. They separate the yogurt machines from the sitting area—a decorative element that makes this Yogurtland the prettiest little frozen-yogurt shop in Orange County.

There are eight yogurt machines in all, inset behind a green-tiled wall and invisible save for their spouts, pumping out 16 different flavors that may vary from week to week. And as this is essentially a yogurt buffet, our journey one night began with an empty Styrofoam cup. Before dispensing, we surveyed the options. I spied a new taro flavor at the last machine and planned the other flavors I chose around it, settling for peach and mango.

The next stop after pouring? The topping station. I scooped up some chopped mango, strawberries, kiwi, red beans and mochi. Finally, once construction was complete, it was off to the scale and payment.

On one trip, the total for my frogurt masterpiece was about $4. But your price may vary based upon your level of gluttony. That night, my smaller-than-normal serving was more than enough to satisfy. The taro yogurt, in particular, was lovely. The light purple substance was starchy and milky, like a mash-up of candied yams and vanilla malt. A perfect topping for it was the mochi: sugary nuggets of glutinous rice that had the pallid-white luster of candle wax and the resiliency of bubble gum.

On another visit, I sampled the plain yogurt and other tart flavors. These are perfect with fruit. But I couldn't resist pairing up the sweeter varieties such as strawberry cheesecake and cookies 'n' cream with a topping of cheesecake crumbles and crushed Oreo. What can I say? It just felt right. But the green-tea flavor I ate alone—toppings would only perturb its Zen-like tranquility.

This kind of yogurt experimentation would be impossible at Pinkberry. But with Yogurtland's 16 flavors and 33 toppings, it's possible to play Dr. Frankenstein with your dessert. No one's going to stop you from creating any number of yogurt monstrosities. Espresso with watermelon chunks and gummi bears, anyone?

YOGURTLAND, 14775 JEFFREY RD., STE. J, IRVINE, (949) 857-0884; WWW.YOGURT-LAND.COM. OPEN SUN.-THURS., 10:30 A.M.-MIDNIGHT; FRI.-SAT., 10:30 A.M.-12:30 A.M. DESSERT FOR TWO, $8-$10.

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