The Bay Area does ice cream well. From the insanely large sundaes served up at Fenton’s in Oakland—which has been a Bay Area staple for 100-plus years— to the classic flavors on offer at the perennially busy Lappert’s on Bridgeway in Sausalito, you can easily find great ice cream throughout the Bay.
The Bay Area is known for culinary innovation, though. We’re the place that brought the world New American cuisine, the popsicle, and the fortune cookie, among many other now-ubiquitous food items and trends. And we’re known for being just a little bit weird and out there.
As a Bay Area local and professional food photographer, I’m sharing five of the most unique ice cream joints you’ll find in the Bay Area. Some are high-tech, others are nostalgic, and one uses an ingredient best known for freezing a Russian hacker solid in a James Bond movie.
Salt and Straw
Salt and Straw is known for its innovative — and sometimes bizarre — ice cream flavors. Pear and blue cheese, or olive oil ice cream? Salt and Straw doesn’t just offer them as specials for adventurous foodies— those are two flavors from their permanent menu.
The fancy ice cream chain loves to switch things up, though, by offering seasonal “series” of carefully themed, limited-edition ice cream flavors. This Summer, the theme is Berries, Berries, Berries. Salt and Straw invited me to their San Ramon location to check the flavors out. I dug into Wild-Foraged Berry Slab pie, which is made with “wild berries plucked from the alpine slopes of Mt. Baker in Washington”, and tried out their Birthday Cake and Blackberries and Besharam’s Yogurt Lassi flavors.
Berry Slab Pie is like an inverted berry pie a-la-mode. Instead of a big slice of pie with a little ice cream, you get a big mound of salted vanilla ice cream swirled with little hunks of buttery pie crust and that magical berry swirl. It was delicious. The birthday cake flavor is gooey, cakey, and oh-so-sweet. It’ll make you feel like you’ve traveled back in time to your fifth birthday party — or to that time as a kid when you licked the beaters while someone was making a cake, even though you were repeatedly told not to.
Besharam’s Yogurt Lassi is decidedly more grown-up. Created in partnership with Head Chef Heena Patel of San Francisco’s upscale eatery Besharam, it’s rich and tangy, with a raspberry swirl and a hint of cardamom which cements the flavor’s connection to its Indian cuisine roots. This is definitely not your run-of-the-mill froyo.
Have a hankering for a unique take on Summer berries? Head to any of Salt and Straw’s locations throughout the Bay to check out the Berries, Berries, Berries flavors–or try some blue cheese ice cream.
There’s a dirty little secret in the ice cream world. While lots of ice cream places create innovative flavors, most start with the same basic ice cream base of eggs, heavy cream, and milk. Some chains even purchase their base from outside suppliers, meaning that they’re using the same base as their competitors.
Not Lottie’s. The bespoke ice cream joint, with locations in Danville and Walnut Creek, goes to incredible— some would say crazy — lengths to ensure that their ice cream base is completely unique. How? The chain buys raw milk directly from farmers and pasteurizes it themselves using custom-built, in-store micro-creameries.
The stakes are high — pasteurizing milk incorrectly can introduce a whole slew of potentially deadly pathogens, including listeria. Lottie’s operations require a special permit from the state, and every aspect of their micro-creameries has to be carefully designed, from the pasteurization equipment itself to the materials in the facilities’ walls. Lottie’s also has to keep detailed records of each batch they make to comply with California law.
It’s a lot of work, but the ice cream is worth it. Lottie’s features a rotating repertoire of flavors, which include basics like chocolate and vanilla, as well as complex ones like Thai Iced Tea, Honey Lavendar, and Kumquat. For Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish-owned store even offers a special Apples and Honey flavor. Because of their one-of-a-kind base, all of Lottie’s flavors are super flavorful and have a powerful, milky taste.
In the climactic scene of the classic 1995 James Bond flick Goldeneye (spoiler alert), villain and Russian hacker Boris Grishenko survives a huge, Bond-precipitated explosion in a secret satellite facility. Emerging from charred rubble, he shouts “I’m invincible!!!”, only to be showered with liquid nitrogen from leaking tanks, which quickly freezes him solid.
The point? Liquid nitrogen is cold. Like, really cold — negative 185 degrees F at least. Looking at the incredibly chilly, hard-to-contain liquid, the creators of Smitten had a thought: “I wonder if we could use that to make ice cream?” It turns out that you can. Smitten, which has locations in Cow Hollow in the city and Santana Row in the South Bay, pumps liquid nitrogen through specially-designed pipes and into solid metal mixers which grace the counters in its stores.
The mixers and the liquid nitrogen allow Smitten to flash-freeze ice cream for each customer, making it fresh to order. You can choose from a variety of flavors, and opt to mix various toppings directly into the ice cream as it’s frozen. The experience is dramatic — pipes hiss and sizzle as a plume of vapor envelops the mixer and flows downwards towards the floor as your ice cream churns.
And it’s not just for show, either. Because Smitten makes their ice cream right in front of you — and because of the extremely low temperature of the liquid nitrogen — their frozen treats are as fresh as you can get, and have tiny ice crystals which make for a luxurious, extra-smooth mouthfeel. If you see a suave British man in a tuxedo enter before you, though, maybe come back another day.
Parkside Snack Bar
Sometimes uniqueness is about innovation. And sometimes, it’s about nostalgia. That’s the case with Parkside Snack Bar, which has been serving visitors to Marin County’s beautiful, secluded Stinson Beach since 1949. Parkside is the only place I’ve found in the Bay Area which offers true, East Coast-style custard ice cream, like the Carvel I remember eating when I went to school in Baltimore.
You can get other throwback favorites, like a basic hot dog or burger, washed down with a Coca-Cola. Grab a cone (they fill them up in a cheerful swirl that’s all but guaranteed to drip on you) and a hotdog from Parkside, meander down to the beach, and pass a lazy Sunday afternoon relaxing by the water with someone special.
Is Parkside’s ice cream innovative? No. But that’s exactly the point.
Cheese Board Pizza
Okay, so this isn’t technically an ice cream place. But they do have something unique, which you ought to try at least one time if you live in the Bay Area and consider yourself a foodie: water buffalo milk ice cream.
Cheese Board Pizza is affiliated with worker-owned collective cheese shop The Cheese Board, one of the places that put Berkeley on the culinary map in the 1970s and inspired Alice Waters to launch her flagship restaurant Chez Panisse in the town. According to a 2017 blog post, Cheese Board Pizza sources its buffalo milk from Double 8 Dairy in Petaluma. Double 8 wanted to supply enough milk to make buffalo mozzarella for the collective’s pizza, but their herd was initially too small.
As they grew it, they realized they had enough milk to make ice cream, and started supplying it to Cheese Board Pizza as an interim step towards their cheesy goals. Today, Double 8 is big enough to supply water buffalo milk for cheesemaking. But guests liked the ice cream so much that the Cheese Board decided to keep it.
Water buffalo produce milk that is much creamier and fattier than cow’s milk. That makes for extra thick and intense ice cream, with just a tiny hint of funky gaminess. The Cheese Board serves it as soft serve, and it goes perfectly with the restaurant’s creative, often playful pizzas. It’s also the perfect foil to their fiery, green Papi Chulo sauce, which they offer liberally as a condiment for their pies.
One caveat: as a worker-owned collective, Cheese Board Pizza determines on a daily basis what it will serve, and even whether it wants to open for business. Call ahead to confirm that the collective is open on a given day, and to make sure they’re serving their ice cream.
Sometimes, you want a classic sundae from your local scoop shop or a late-night It’s It ice cream sandwich from the freezer aisle at Safeway. And that’s fine — there’s no wrong way to enjoy ice cream.