Why the Twin Cities is the best place to eat ice cream in the universe

With this many choices of local, handcrafted treats, why go anywhere else?

Sitting on a bench outside Pumphouse Creamery with a scoop of strawberry sorbet, I watched a class of fencing students spill out from the neighboring Chicago Avenue storefront, a gaggle of awkward teens who might one day fill our ranks of theater directors, video game programmers, and morticians. As one of the dads escorted his boy, a bespectacled redhead with a frame as thin as his fencer's foil, through the doors of the scoop shop, it struck me that this was a scene I'd always taken for granted. That the rest of the country wasn't necessarily like this. That somewhere on a Santa Monica sidewalk, a teenage girl in thick black eye makeup, miniskirt, and moose hide mukluks was waiting in line outside the local Pinkberry, listening to her iPod and texting her boyfriend as she tried to decide whether she wanted to top her 98-calorie cup with the Fruity Pebbles or the Cocoa ones.

There's something quintessentially Minnesotan about being a regular at the neighborhood ice cream shop. There are scoop shops all over the country, sure, but for a metropolis of our size—and particularly one with summers as short as a cone's melt—we have an abundance of artisans who craft frozen confections as seriously as Wisconsinites do cheese and Californians do wine. I don't know if it's a function of all the dairy farms, or the Dairy Queen franchises, but eating ice cream, and particularly going out for ice cream, is as deeply ingrained in our cultural fabric as polite refusals and excessive apologizing. It's something people in other parts of the country just don't seem to understand. As my neighbor and I walked to Sebastian Joe's, he mentioned that his friend from the West Coast had called just as he was leaving the house. "When I told him I was going out for ice cream, he said, 'What are you, six?'"

The friend didn't get it. His loss. Here in Minnesota, ice cream is an all-ages affair: kids with their parents, packs of sweaty teenagers, elderly folks, and plenty of people in the age bracket that typically hangs out in clubs or bars. After licking my way across Minneapolis and St. Paul, I've come up with a short list of the best shops, their most distinguishing features, and why I think we deserve to be the handcrafted ice cream capital of the country.

Scooping out the action in the Crema Cafe courtyard
Jana Freiband
Scooping out the action in the Crema Cafe courtyard

Location Info

Map

Crema Cafe

3403 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Restaurant > Breakfast

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Details

CREMA CAFE 3403 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.824.3868

PUMPHOUSE CREAMERY 4754 Chicago Ave, Minneapolis, 612.825.2021; pumphouse-creamery.com

IZZY'S ICE CREAM 2034 Marshall Ave., St Paul, 651.603.1458; izzysicecream.com

GRAND OLE CREAMERY 750 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 651.293.1655; grandolecreamery.com

SEBASTIAN JOE'S 1007 W. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.870.0065

Crema Cafe

The courtyard outside Crema Cafe looks more like Italy than south Minneapolis, with its stucco facade, thicket of plants, and weathered blue door. With Etta James singing "At Last" on the stereo, accompanied by the tinkle of the water fountain, the cafe's setting is as beautiful as what it's serving.

A few years ago, Crema started offering wine, beer, brunch, and dinner, but the heart of the operation will always be Sonny's ice cream. Its namesake, Sonny Siron, passed away in December at the age of 81, but his 60-year legacy of ice cream making will not soon be forgotten. Sonny's son, Ron, and his partner, Carrie Gustafson, continue to uphold the quality and traditions of using premium ingredients and experimenting with flavors—everything from wasabi ice cream to pine tree sorbet.

In the off-season, Ron spends one day a week working at jP's restaurant, just up the street, where he says he's been picking up ideas for more savory flavors. Last time I stopped in Crema, I sampled the carrot dill lassi, in which cantaloupe-sweet organic carrots were complemented by hints of sour yogurt and spunky dill. I also tried the margarita sorbet, which has an almost slushy texture that's a little sweeter and less boozy than the cocktail version. But I settled on the olive oil with sea salt—the oil makes the texture ultra creamy and gives it a slightly cheesy flavor. It was so rich I wondered if wiggling my tongue might churn it into butter.

Pumphouse Creamery

Barb Zapzalka, Pumphouse Creamery's owner and a lifelong dasher-licker, has a hyper-local focus at her shop. During peak berry season, Zapzalka sells ice creams and sorbets made with locally grown strawberries and raspberries (the red ones are grown by her sister and brother-in-law), and she should be scooping her beloved blueberry buttermilk any day now. Zapzalka used to source cherries from Door County, Wisconsin, but now she's getting them even closer, from an orchard in Cold Spring. "I like supporting local farm economies," she says. "I know where my ingredients came from and what the farmers put or don't put in their crops."

Zapzalka buys her milk and cream from Crystal Ball Farms, an organic dairy in Osceola, Wisconsin. The browned butter comes from Hope Creamery, just south of Owatonna, the beer from Surly in Brooklyn Park, the chocolate from Rogue Chocolatier in Minneapolis. And, oh, the ice cream made with Rogue's Hispaniola: It has a dense, mousse-like texture, and the flavors in the chocolate reminded me of Willy Wonka's three-course-meal chewing gum, changing from ripe plum to burnt caramel to roasted nuts. When I bought a pint of the stuff, the kid at the counter was kind enough to warn me that it cost nine bucks, more than double the cost of Ben & Jerry's. Is it worth it? I'd say yes: It keeps money in local pockets, and it's the best chocolate ice cream I've ever had.

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