On a warm morning, I hopped on my bike to try out Just Bee Açaí’s (pronounced “ah-sah-ee”) new location at the Illini Union. For the last two years, a bowl from Just Bee Açaí’s food truck has been my motivation to wake up early on a Saturday. If I arrived at the Urbana farmers' market before 8 a.m., I could get a bowl without much of a wait. By 9, the line for a bowl stretched from the sunny yellow van to the other side of the parking lot.


I locked up my bike outside the Union’s Green Street entrance and headed inside to meet up with my friends. For someone like me, who never attended the U of I, the Union is a labyrinth of hallways punctuated by tables of students clicking through homework assignments. I kept walking and eventually bumped into Just Bee Açaí. For a quicker route, I’d recommend entering from the Main Quad. The restaurant is on the first floor just inside the door.

A view of Just Bee Açaí’s restaurant from the hallway of the Illini Union. A glowing sign says “Just Bee Açaí” in a curly, faux-script font. Two employees are at work in the far corner of the clean, brightly-lit kitchen with accents of pine. White subway tile covers the walls and chalk signs list out the menu. Two people wait in line with their backs turned towards the camera. Photo by Julia Freeman.Photo by Julia Freeman.

Like at the farmers' market, a line was already forming even though the restaurant hadn’t even opened yet. But with a little more elbow room inside the kitchen, the bowl-making seemed much more efficient, and the line moved quickly. I waited to order for about ten minutes, and then waited another seven minutes for my food.

None of my friends had tried Just Bee Açaí before, and they found the ordering process a little intimidating — there were a lot of options, and it was hard to see the small type on the menu until you were at the front of the line. I’d recommend looking up the menu before you go or pulling it up on your phone while you wait.

Altogether, we ordered four bowls and one loaded toast. There isn’t anywhere to sit right by the restaurant, but you can walk down the hallway to the Courtyard Cafe. We chose to enjoy the warm sunshine and eat at a bright blue picnic table on the terrace outside.

A clear plastic bowl sits on a blue mesh picnic table. A layer of acai fills the bottom of the bowl. Banana slices, peanut butter, and cacao nibs are visible on top. Photo by Julia Freeman.Photo by Julia Freeman.

If you’ve never tried an açaí bowl before, the Bee Sweet bowl ($8 for 12oz) is a great place to start. How can you go wrong with the comforting combination of chocolate, peanut butter, and banana? This bowl had a great balance of textures with rich peanut butter, crunchy whole peanuts, crispy cacao nibs, and soft, creamy banana slices. The açaí base was served cold enough that it kept its frozen consistency for the whole meal and didn't melt into soup.

A clear plastic bowl sits on a blue mesh picnic table. Layers of acai and overnight oats fill the bottom of the bowl. Banana slices, peanut butter, peanuts, and strawberries are visible on top. A wooden spoon sticks out to the side. Photo by Julia Freeman.Photo by Julia Freeman.

Up for a little more adventure? Try ordering more than one base for your bowl. We tried the Bee Nutty bowl ($10 for 16oz) with both açaí and overnight oats. I enjoyed the variety of textures that resulted from that combination. Personally, I don’t really like overnight oats and probably wouldn’t ever choose that base for myself, but I’m glad my friend did because these were the best overnight oats I’ve ever had. They had the perfect level of sweetness and were seasoned with just a hint of cinnamon.

A clear plastic bowl sits on a blue mesh picnic table. Layers of chia seed pudding and granola fill the bottom of the bowl. Blueberries and a round slice of lemon — half dipped in chia seeds — are visible on top. A wooden spoon sticks out to the side. Photo by Julia Freeman.Photo by Julia Freeman.

The Bee Zesty ($10 for 16 oz), a bowl with lemon chia seed pudding, granola, and blueberries, is one of the options on the spring/summer seasonal menu. The lemon flavor was subtle, but it was definitely present. The blueberries were ripe and flavorful.

A photo of a clear plastic bowl sitting on a blue mesh picnic table. Layers of Blue Majik and acai fill the bottom of the bowl. Pieces of pineapple, slices of kiwi, chopped macadamia nuts, and a bright fuchsia orchid are visible on top. The fruit is dusted with coconut flakes and a wooden spoon sticks out to the side. Photo by Julia Freeman.Photo by Julia Freeman.

All the bowls we tried were beautiful with colorful layers and artfully arranged fruit slices, but the Bee Ohana ($10 for 16 oz) was by far the most Instagram-able. Topped with an edible orchid, this seasonal bowl featured macadamia nuts and tropical fruit. It also included two more unusual bases: pitaya and blue majik. The pitaya was made from dragonfruit, making it bright fuchsia in color and almost too sweet. The blue majik’s aqua color came from spirulina algae, but don’t worry: its flavor was not reminiscent of pondwater. It tasted like a tropical fruit smoothie, with pineapple and mango flavors, and had a sherbet-like texture.

Photo by Julia Freeman.

What if you, or someone you’re with just isn’t in the mood for a bowl? I wanted to make sure I answered that question by ordering one of Just Bee Açaí’s loaded toasts. The Let’s Get Caprese ($8) was an avocado toast topped with a caprese salad. Given all the toppings, it was surprisingly easy to eat. They used cherry tomatoes, bite-size mozzarella balls, and shredded basil which meant I could taste all the different flavors in a single mouthful. Just like the fruit, the tomatoes, avocado, and basil were all fresh and flavorful. The sourdough bread was lightly toasted, so it was crunchy on the outside and still soft and chewy in the middle. Although the toast wasn’t served hot, it was still much less chilling than the frozen or refrigerated bases used for the bowls. It would be a tasty choice for a cooler day when you’re still craving a meal that feels fresh and light.

A woman in a black, long-sleeved t-shirt sits at a blue mesh picnic table. She holds a clear plastic bowl with peanut butter, açaí, granola, and fruit. She lifts a strawberry slice with a wooden spoon. Photo by Julia Freeman.Photo by Julia Freeman.

We took our time eating — enjoying all the different textures and flavors of our bowls and people-watching on the quad. All of us finished our meal feeling satisfied but not stuffed. Whether you’re looking for a relaxed Saturday brunch or a quick bowl to go, I can’t recommend Just Bee Açaí enough. The bowls are attractive but not overdone. They don’t compromise taste for looks. The textures of the different bases were spot-on and delicately sweetened while the fruit toppings were fresh, flavorful, and juicy. One of my friends was so inspired by our meal that she made her own açaí bowl at home the next week, but she liked the bowls at Just Bee Acaí better.

Just Bee Açaí
Illini Union
1401 W Green St
Urbana
T-Sa 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Top image by Julia Freeman.