By Blake Sharp
Salt and Straw’s newest location is exactly 4,217 steps from my dorm room or an 11-minute ride by bike (if I forgo any traffic rules). The 17th scoop shop on the West Coast and the fourth in Bay Area opened on Nov. 23, and there were, unsurprisingly, lines curling around the block on University Avenue. Everyone was waiting to sample the inventive ice cream flavors. Salt and Straw has exponentially grown in popularity since opening as an ice cream cart in Portland, Oregon, and that is largely due to its ingenious flavor combinations. Some of these flavors are offered at all Salt and Straw locations, such as Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons or Salted, Malted, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. Other flavors vary by region, including San Francisco’s Old Potrero Rye and Cocoa Nib Sorbet or Sightless Coffee and Cashew Praline. Some of the remaining flavors even vary by month, like the holiday season’s Peppermint Bark Cocoa and Apple Brandy and Pecan Pie.
When I imagine Salt and Straw, my mind usually goes straight to the novel flavor combinations. Co-founder and head ice cream maker Tyler Malek agrees that the flavors are one of the most unique facets of his business, but he also told me that the community Salt and Straw garners in each of its locations is just as special. In each new area, the ice cream flavor inventor (sign me up for a summer internship with that job title) works directly with local farms and businesses to curate fresh ingredients and infuse a regional taste to each location. Salt and Straw wants customers to come into their scoop shops and recognize the companies who make the chocolate or coffee or even cheese that is in the ice creams. Malek compares menu curation to storytelling: “I start preparing my stories almost a year in advance, so each flavor can go through a rigorous testing process before being scooped into our house-made waffle cones and ultimately into our customer’s mouths.”
Malek also contends that Salt and Straw is not just about the farm-to-cone process but also about the community felt by customers and team members in every store. Each trip to Salt and Straw is an experience, between the long wait time, reading through the menu (seven times?), choosing which ice creams to sample (thank goodness the scoopers encourage this practice because I seriously don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t try them all) and ultimately deciding on a final order. Malek says this friendly atmosphere makes Salt and Straw the epicenter of a unique food-loving community.
This community was strikingly evident from the moment I stepped into line. I already smelled the freshly made waffle cones on the opening day. I was with two friends from the volleyball team. As we deliberated the menu and neared the front, we were greeted by a scooper who ushered us to our individual spot at the counter. Our server told us everything from the ice cream bases to the mix-ins are all made in house and welcomed us to try any flavor we want. He also reminded us that a portion of that day’s proceeds from all four of the Bay Area shops were going to California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund to support our surrounding communities. So this means I had to get a double scoop, right?
As I pored over the menu, I remember Malek telling me about his craziest ice cream flavor research project. Malek worked with Chef Traci Des Jardins of Jardinière (famous and influential French restaurant in San Francisco) to create the flavor Duck Crackling with Cherry Preserves. He told me this ice cream was made with duck fat, molasses, cherry preserves, candied duck skin and caramelized honey. This flavor only appeared in San Francisco scoop shops for a month, but the current menu still boasts of some pretty wild combinations like Honey Lavender, Mt. Tam Cheese with Toasted Acme Bread and Organic Roots Arbequina Olive Oil. Despite all these wacky flavor adventures, Malek told me his go-to order is Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons in a cup with hot fudge drizzled on top. Like Malek, I tried more traditional flavors for my first few samples.
I first tried the seasonal Gingerbread Cookie Dough, which has gingerbread cookie butter laced through a rum royal icing ice cream and molasses cookies folded in. I first tasted the creamy cookie butter, which was quickly overpowered by the sweet and slightly oaky cream. However the sharpness and spice from the molasses-based gingerbread lingered in my mouth for a couple seconds after I had licked off the tasting spoon. My eyes and mouth were open wide because even such a small taste took me on such a ride.
I then tried the vegan Dandelion Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies and Cream, which is chocolate coconut ice cream with Dandelion chocolate from the Mission District in San Francisco, hazelnut milk and house-made gluten-free and vegan Oreos. The sandwich cookies were a delicious crunch in the surprisingly creamy vegan base. The flavor of the ice cream was overwhelmingly chocolate coconut-y, which I wasn’t mad about, but my teammate was taken aback by the Almond Joy resemblance.
My next tasting spoon had a giant glob of the Mt. Tam Cheese with Toasted Acme Bread ice cream. The moist crunch of the bread combined with the sweet cream and salty cheese makes this ice cream one of the most unique flavor experiences I have ever had. I was stunned by the overpowering flavor of the Cowgirl Creamery triple cream brie that was perfectly balanced with the sour cherry and apricot preserves for a unique salty, sweet blend. With the Acme fruit and walnut bread chunks, the ice cream pays homage to a perfect hors d’oeuvres plate.
I ended up settling on the seasonal Peppermint Bark Cocoa scooped into a house-made waffle cone, which has giant gobs of Williams Sonoma peppermint bark swirled into dark chocolate ice cream infused with peppermint oil. The ice cream was rich and festive, and a perfect distillation of my favorite holiday drink. I walked out pondering how wonderful, yet dangerous, it is to have such a unique and delicious shop so close to my dorm room. Until next time, 4,217 steps to go.