Why the Twin Cities is the best place to eat ice cream in the universe
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.
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.
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.
Izzy's is all about innovation. Every other year, the St. Paul shop hosts its People's Flavor Awards: Customers submit new flavor ideas, then the Izzy's staff makes samples of the most intriguing ones and submits them to a lick-off. Flavor fanatics buy tickets to taste all the entries and vote for the winner, which earns a coveted spot in Izzy's flavor rotation. Past finalists have included everything from Chocolate Covered Potato Chip to Dirt Cake (chocolate ice cream with chocolate pudding, cream cheese, Oreos, and gummy worms, for those of you who don't have kids). Owner Jeff Sommers used the 2006 People's champion, Hot Brown Sugar, to beat celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a "Throwdown" on Flay's Food Network show.
One of the shop's other innovations is the "Izzy," an additional mini-scoop so the indecisive don't have to choose between, say, a scoop of ume (dark chocolate with plum wine) or baklava. Another advance: the solar panels installed on the roof, which provide about 15 percent of the shop's energy.
Grand Ole Creamery
"Where are you guys?" a guy barked into his cell phone, as he stood among the throngs outside Grand Ole Creamery, peeking into the window. "Oh, I see you. Get me a single scoop of Reese's Pieces." An older lady waiting patiently on a nearby bench commented to her friend, "That's cheating. You've got to go through the line."
Ordering methods may be different than when the St. Paul shop opened in 1984, but everything else feels, and tastes, much the same. A lot of shops make handmade waffle cones, and while their quality is good across the board, Grand Ole Creamery's are the best to watch. On the night I was there, kids pressed their faces against the glass to watch a teenage girl pour batter into eight waffle irons. When the bumpy skins started to brown, she peeled them off the iron and deftly rolled them on a conical mold, careful not to burn her fingers.
Grande Ole's flavors are mostly classics, from Peppermint Bon-Bon to Maple Nut, but my favorite is Birthday Cake, which tastes just like the batter, with colorful candy bits and little angel food sponges.
By the time I made it to Sebastian Joe's, I'd already been to two other ice cream shops that day. (Though at one I took only three licks of a plastic-tasting peach soft serve before tossing it into somebody's bushes. To the squirrel I hope discovered it: Eat your heart out. And to the homeowner who hopefully didn't: Sorry!) Though Sebastian Joe's has its fair share of funky flavors—like Roasted Garlic Almond Chip—I always gravitate toward its signature raspberry chocolate, which tastes like it has a whole pint of berries crushed into each scoop, or Oreo, which is rich, chocolaty, dark as asphalt, and seems to contain more cookies than ice cream.
The best thing about Joe's ice cream may be the treats it is fashioned into: Oreo ice cream made into a pie, raspberry chocolate chip sandwiched between two buttery cookies, vanilla blended with caramel and espresso into an elixir that's sweet and caffeinated enough to bestow the frenzied energy of its namesake, local writer and Joe's regular Neal Karlen. I sat on the sidewalk and made a mess of my Brr Bar, dark-chocolate-dipped Oreo ice cream on a stick. Each time I took a bite, shards of chocolate went flying and the ice cream quickly dripped. At this point, I was probably just a scoop or two shy of making myself sick. But Minnesota summers are too short not to enjoy them to the fullest, so I licked it all the way down to the popsicle stick.
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