Its perpetual chill be damned, San Francisco is an ice cream lover’s utopia, a city where frozen-dairy shrines like Bi-Rite Creamery, Humphry Slocombe and Mitchell’s court perpetual lines and impassioned debate about their relative merits. The past few years have brought a new batch of scoop shops and trucks whose products are quintessentially Northern Californian, with an emphasis on local, organic ingredients and flavors that range from the slavishly seasonal to the doggedly avant-garde. It’s the kind of ice cream you’d expect, in other words, from one of the most gastronomically fixated cities in the country.
The shaved ice that Erin Lang ate growing up in Hawaii wasn’t far from her mind when she hit the road with Garden Creamery (808-224-6626; gardencreamery.com), an ice cream truck that’s been a fixture at street food gatherings since last year. Lang’s initial focus was vegan sorbets; she’s since added ice cream sandwiches, gelato and popsicles. Some of her biggest sellers have been Tahitian vanilla and Bangkok Thai peanut butter gelato with cayenne pepper and toasted coconut. “What’s really great is that people are so knowledgeable about different types of food,” Lang said. “We don’t really have to educate customers.”
Another street-food stalwart is Frozen Kuhsterd (415-371-9050; frozenkuhsterd.com), which became one of California’s first frozen-custard trucks when Jason Angeles introduced it in 2012 after being laid off from his job as a finance industry systems administrator. In true San Francisco style, the dense, creamy custard serves as a blank palette for experimentation: chocolate, barley, tea; salt and pepper potato chip; and Saikyo miso have all made appearances on the menu. And, like many of their fellow truckers, Angeles and his partners hope to go brick and mortar: A Mission pop-up is planned for this summer.
A childhood photo of herself opening an ice cream maker at Christmas provided Juliet Pries with the inspiration for the Ice Cream Bar (815 Cole St.; 415-742-4932; theicecreambarsf.com), the ice cream counter and soda fountain she opened in the Cole Valley neighborhood in 2012. Old standards like mint chip and butterscotch are her signature, but the 16 to 18 daily flavors also include seasonal varieties like basil and blackberry. Pries theorized that living in “such a food-centered town” is at the root of the San Franciscan ice cream obsession. “Standing in line to get ice cream has kind of become a thing to do,” she said. “That’s how I figured I couldn’t go wrong, as long as it was good.”
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“California-style gelato” describes what Cremeux ex Machina (835 Chileno Valley Road, Petaluma; 707-765-1711; cremeuxexmachina.com) produces, as well as the 2-year-old company’s mission, which, its website states, is to “celebrate the heck” out of the state’s produce and personalities. Although production is done on a certified-organic dairy farm in nearby Petaluma, the owners Jennifer Ko and Alex Saneski sell their scoops at the Ferry Building Farmers Market and a handful of specialty shops. Flavors like rhubarb-vanilla sorbetto and kaffir lime, pink peppercorn are about as San Francisco as it gets; small wonder the couple plans to start looking for a storefront in the city within the next year.
Since opening its doors in 2010, Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous (699 22nd St.; 415-970-0750) has emerged as one of the city’s most beloved ice cream parlors. It’s the work of Ian Flores and Annabelle Topacio, a pair of pastry chefs who worked at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago. Their training is evident in fanciful flavors like candied violet and orange chipotle, as well as the house-made cones, toppings and sauces. Although the shop sits in the quasi-industrial wilds of the Dogpatch neighborhood, its frequently changing menu draws a constant line.
It takes approximately 90 seconds to get a scoop at Smitten (432 Octavia St. 1A; 415-863-1518; smittenicecream.com), where ice cream is frozen to order using liquid-nitrogen-fueled machines developed by Smitten’s founder, Robyn Fisher. In 2011, Fisher opened her first store in Hayes Valley near downtown where her patented Brrr machines churn out flavors including salted caramel, bay leaf and strawberry balsamic. Fisher recently opened three additional Bay Area outposts. “Experimentation is accepted here,” she said, “but it has to be pretty damn good for people to actually come back.”