Gourmet soft serve? Mike Greaney and trusty P.I.C. Drew Hankins investigate.
Soft serve… does anyone ever even want it? It’s the kind of thing that one only thinks of when it is there. You’re at the ballpark and they’re serving it up in a tiny baseball helmet? Okay, sure. You pull off at a rest stop and low and behold there’s a DQ? I’ll take a Blizzard. Sometimes they call it “Froyo” and that fools people for a while, but eventually they get wise and go back to the hard stuff.
Soft serve is so out of sight and mind that they have to put it in creepy vans and drive it around until they find someone who wants it. It’s the only desert that is sold by way of stalking. If they didn’t drive to random corners and parks, the ice-cream-eating community would just get in line at Ample Hills like everyone else. But when all of the sudden you hear that bell and see the van coming round the corner, you say, “Ice cream? Okay, gimme a swirl and get the hell off my block before I call the cops!”
So why look beyond Mister Softee? Isn’t he all we need? I say this at the risk of welcoming the wrath of the Softee loyalists out there (a community whose wrath I do not fear), but Mister Softee is the Kleenex of the soft-serve world. It doesn’t matter what it says on the truck, it’s all Softee at the end of the cone.
But then a friend tried to tell me about “next level” soft serve that can be found all over NYC. I’d dismissed the concept almost immediately, mainly because the expectation was that I would intentionally go to it, which was unheard of to me. Enter Larry Closs, our fearless marketing director/editor-in-chief of our award-winning newsletter. When he asked me to contribute to a summer-themed edition of the newsletter, I thought to myself, “This sounds like just enough of an excuse to run around town and stuff my face with ice cream. With my Partner-in-Cream Drew in tow, I took to the streets almost immediately. What we found was some truly innovative thinking in the form of cones. To my surprise there are some bold ideas out there that, while not for everyone, make soft serve more hardcore.
Ice cream is not the star of the show at this all-in-one lunch and bakery chain, but it is a quality supporting player. The ice cream is Mister Softee by way of Tokyo. They offer two flavors—green tea and black sesame—piling both precariously high in a wafer cone. I ordered the swirl, which was a more colorful cone, but I found the two flavors melded into one and I didn’t get a true sense of either one. What sense I did get, however, was that the black sesame was the winner, and I saluted Drew for his decision to fully embrace the sesame. He really liked it. We went on and on about how unexpected the flavor was. He even used the phrase “blew me away.” I’m sure it was great, but I couldn’t help feeling like he was rubbing my nose in it a bit. My black sesame was sharing valuable taste space with a far inferior green tea, while Drew was living high off the hog in his unfiltered sesame paradise.
What I leaned about ice cream: Swirl, schmirl!
What I learned about Drew: He thinks he’s better at eating ice cream than me.
If I had to complain: It is a lot of ice cream.
Big Gay Ice Cream was easily the most-hyped shop I visited so there was a lot to live up to. And I’m not going to say it was bad by any stretch of the imagination. Ice cream is like pizza—it’s never really bad, just a lower degree of good. But at Big Gay, ice cream is the only thing they do yet it was the least awesome cone I had.
I ordered the “Salty Pimp,” which is a chocolate-dipped vanilla cone with dolce de leche injected via syringe. The DDL was salty for sure, but I am not sure what made this cone “Pimp” in any way. Maybe I don’t want to know.
Drew ordered the Bea Arthur, which, by some strange logic, seemed more appropriately titled. It is vanilla, the patented DDL injection, covered in Nilla wafer crumbs. Drew modified his order by ordering the Special “Cinnamon Toast Crunch” ice cream. Drew noticed me staring at his cone and offered me a lick. The CT Crunch was a revelation. Once again, the better cone sat melting in Drew’s hand. Why he decided to make this a competition I’ll never know… but it was clear that it was on.
What I learned about Ice Cream: Toppings don’t always have to go on the outside.
What I learned about Drew: He enjoys Cinnamon Toast Crunch and making me jealous… not in that order.
If I had to Complain: Both were solid cones, no doubt, but I found myself trying to justify the names rather than getting lost in the creamy goodness.
At the end of North 12th Street in Williamsburg sits Airstream trailer serving burgers and ice cream in the shadow of the swanky William Vale Hotel. Normally I prefer being on first-name basis with my desert, so If you’re going to make me call you “Mister,” you better be giving me something better than Softee (I’m still not scared of you Softees out there). In the case of Mister Dips, my respect has been earned.
The small soft-serve menu includes creative combinations that are built for Instagram and have slightly less baffling names. I ordered the Jacker Crax, which was popcorn ice cream covered with butterscotch dip, with two ornamental pieces of caramel corn fused into the top. Drew went for the Berry Gibbs, also delicious—fruit flavored soft serve beneath strawberry dip, with a whole strawberry swizzled in.
But the day was clearly mine. Drew tried to play it down but it was clear to everyone present that he had a case of ice cream envy that would not soon be cured. Mister Dips, sir, you have not seen the last of me this summer. I shall return one day for a burger and to try the third cone option, the Malter Cronkite.
What I learned about Ice Cream: I am willing to take pictures of it.
What I learned about Drew: He just a man after all.
If I had to Complain: Once the industrial-strength dip is pierced, it’s like a soft-serve volcano. Messiest cone I had, so don’t wear nice shoes.
Don’t tell Drew, but I had a new P.I.C for this one. I was in the neighborhood with my 9-year-old daughter, Fiamma, and when we happened by Milk Bar I couldn’t resist (even though I’d had Mister Dips a mere four hours prior). Besides, I don’t only have to eat ice cream with Drew do I? Whatever. I needed a break, okay. Get off my back about it.
Milk Bar, known for many things, serves up the very unique “Cereal Milk” flavored soft serve. This did not sound particularly appealing to me, but the internet alleged that it was a “thing,” so I went for it and was pleasantly surprised. Stealing the show from the ice cream, however, was the caramelized cornflake topping. The topping was so good that when the outskirts of the ice cream had been consumed and no more flakes remained, I found myself a bit bored by the flavor, when all of the sudden—huzzah!—there was an additional layer of corn flake crumbs waiting for me at the bottom. Well played, Milk Bar. Fiamma got the “birthday cake” with chocolate sauce. It was much sweeter, and a bit more “expected” as a flavor, but we were both pretty happy with our selections.
Halfway through the treats, however, my daughter spoiled the mood by jockeying for ink space in my article. She asked, “Are you going to say ‘I went to milk bar and had a wonderful experience I with my beautiful daughter.’ ” I told her probably not, as this is serious journalism and no place for nepotism. I also started to miss Drew a little bit. He may be bizarrely competitive when it comes to ice cream, but he never grubs for space in my essays. In fact, I think he might prefer being left out of them. The last several bites of ice cream were awkward to say the least.
What I learned about Ice Cream: Sometimes toppings are required.
What I learned about Fiamma: She was only ever in it for the fame.
If I had to Complain: No cones were available. Not sure if that was a fluke or if it’s Milk Bar policy. If the latter, I question their sanity.
Happy to have Drew back at my side, and looking forward to a more professional, if spirited, tasting, we headed to Chelsea market, home to many a culinary delight including Seed + Mill, a tahini purveyor that also happens to serve up an inspired cone. They only have one flavor—you guessed it—tahini. But what they lack in variety they make up for in uniqueness. The ice cream alone is delicious but their custom cones are down right legendary. I went with the blue-corn cone, which complemented the soft serve wonderfully. But once again, the topping ran away with it. Crumbled halva? Who would have thought?
In a clear show of sportsmanship Drew ordered the exact same cone. An olive branch had been extended for sure, and we were once again two P.I.C.s just having some ice cream… until Drew started in about how he “liked” it, but didn’t “love” it, and how it was his “least favorite” of the cones we had tried. But this party would not be pooped upon. I enjoyed my cone right down the last bite, without trifling over the surmountable gap between “like” and “love.”
What I learned about Ice Cream: It is a bold and rewarding move to include halva.
What I learned about Drew: Sometimes liking things isn’t enough for him.
If I had to Complain: Why would I complain about ice cream? What am I, Drew or something?