Perhaps it’s my biased love for the food, but when I first moved to San Francisco, I noticed the surplus of ice cream shops (to my delight). This city is known for fresh foods, made from locally sourced, organic ingredients and sweet treats are no different. The variety of ice cream shops that vary in flavor specialities to techniques is so vast that you’re sure to find something to please everyone. Last year, I sought out to complete this post by the end of summer. With the middle of “summer” (because it doesn’t get truly hot here til at least September) looming near, here’s a quick-and-dirty of my ice cream votes:
WHEN IN SF: MY TOP 5 MUST-TRY PLACES
I credit my friends Jackie and Row for introducing me to this place before I even moved here. Known for their seasonal favorite flavors like Ricanelas and Balsamic Strawberries, along with popular signature flavors like Honey Lavender (my favorite), their first shop is located by Dolores Park in the Mission and can be spotted by the line wrapping around the block. The shop has since expanded to include soft serves of their most popular flavors, and another mini stand in their market on Divisadero in NoPa (a not-so-hidden gem!).
Best known for fun, interesting flavors with kitschy names (Jesus Juice, anyone?), most notably their Secret Breakfast: a combination of whiskey and corn flakes. The flavors are fun, but not too sweet and overpowering. Here, I had the Oolong tea, which reminded me of a good milk tea, frozen to ice cream consistency. The true taste of the tea stood out well. Their original location is in the Mission, but I love walking to the Ferry Building location and browsing the shops while I enjoy this cool treat.
A true San Francisco establishment, Mitchell’s has been around since 1953. You’ve probably unknowingly had some of their ice cream if you’ve had dessert a la mode at a restaurant here, as they sell their ice cream by the gallon as well. On the border of Bernal Heights and the Mission, this place is almost always packed. They operate with a queue system like the deli, where you take a number and patiently wait, drooling while staring at the cases and cases of ice cream. Their menu is HUGE so they really have a flavor for everyone’s taste, from classic flavors like grasshopper pie to Asian favorites like Filipino Ube and Halo Halo, two kind of coconut ice cream (macapuno and buko), and fruit sorbets that fly under the radar but are my favorite.
Mr. and Mrs. is the quintessential small batch shop. Located in the Dogpatch, the shop is open Wed. – Sun. for about a 6-hour window. The flavors are constantly changing, and if you’re going to make the trek, might as well check their Facebook page to make sure they’re open. When there, you can easily spot it by the line wrapped outside the shop. My most favorite flavor I’ve had there thus far was a seasonal mango that tasted like home.
What screams tech town more than ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen? Smitten’s menu is small but mighty, with recommended sauce and topping pairings. I loved when they offered flights, so you can try the entire menu, but still good nonetheless. The liquid nitrogen makes the ice cream silky smooth, yet still rich. I love the original Hayes Valley location (literally like a shack), but they’re now on Fillmore and in the Peninsula in a Whole Foods as well. Here’s their version of balsamic strawberries with a handmade waffle cone.
MY FAVORITE ICE CREAM SPOTS
While some of those SF staples do rank as my favorites, these are also some underdog winners:
I think my parents may be Marco Polo’s biggest fans. Located in the Sunset, Marco Polo makes Italian gelato in both classic gelato flavors, but also hard-to-find Asian favorites like taro, durian (mom’s fave – hold your nose), lychee, and jackfruit. The texture is unreal — true gelato style that is thick, yet light and airy. The last time my parents visited, they asked us to take them back for another helping before leaving.
San Francisco’s Hometown Creamery
Perhaps my most frequented ice cream shop at the moment, thanks to my husband (that’s him staring down the flight) who is enamored by their sorbets. The newcomer in this list, SFHC just celebrated their one year anniversary — Happy Birthday! Started by two brothers, one who worked across the street and loved the location in the Inner Sunset, the two set out to do ice cream right. Everything is made from scratch on site in a Japanese-restaurant-turned-ice cream shop. Their menu is a good sized, but not overwhelming, and they also have seasonal flavors. When Prince passed, they created the Purple Rain (first one on the left in the flight) as a tribute — a blueberry cheesecake style ice cream. If you’re a chocolate fan, you have to try their chocolate sorbet, which is essentially how a frozen dark chocolate bar would taste. One of the best parts of SFHC — the handmade cones are free!
I had a soft serve phase, and this place was a novelty to me more than anything. It reminded me of King Kone in Los Angeles, and was fun to line up in Golden Gate Park to get ice cream. Apart from soft serve, they actually also serve Mitchell’s ice cream on the truck.But my favorite from this truck are their handmade lollies, which are basically fruit sorbets. They’re refreshing on a (rare) hot day, and have real chunks of fruit in them.
NON-ICE CREAM ICE CREAM TREATS
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include some of my favorite ice cream treats not found in an ice cream shop:
Blue Bottle Affogato
Sometimes, a classic can be done so right you wouldn’t dream of having it anywhere else. San Francisco’s famed Blue Bottle offers an affogato at select locations. It’s two shots of espresso, poured over brown butter gelato, presumably from Humphrey Slocombe. The bits of butter that still linger in the gelato make all the difference in the world to cut the bitterness of the espresso.
With its original location in Hayes Valley, Souvla is known for their Greek salads and wraps and this signature dessert: Greek yogurt made into soft serve. You can get it with a few different kinds of toppings: Greek honey, Greek cherry syrup, baklava crumbles or my favorite olive oil and sea salt (pictured here). The tanginess of Greek yogurt is unlike any frozen yogurt you’ve had and will make you opt for this over your Oikos, Chobani or Fage.
Happy National Ice Cream Day!