Having grown up Chinese, I am no stranger to exotic flavors—black sesame, durian, and red bean all flavored the unique "sweets" of my youth. But it wasn't until exploring the icy treats of the Bay Area that I came to know even more curious and alluring scoops.
I also didn't truly know what it meant to be in love with ice cream until I moved here six years ago from Los Angeles—when it's 60 degrees out here, we line up around the block for a single scoop with perhaps a drizzle of olive oil. Naturally, I queued up to see what the fuss was about and have never looked back. Here are some of the most unique flavors you can get now (most spots have rotating or seasonal menus), from peppercorn to vegan Thai curry.
Charcoal ice cream with blackberry vanilla whipped cream swirl.(@littlegiant_ic)
Good ice cream begins with great dairy. Little Giant sources its milk from Clover Stornetta Farms in Petaluma and then pasteurizes in house at their mini factory in Oakland. There they churn out some of the most flavorful ice creams around. This season's most exotic licks: vegan Thai curry with a coconut-and-almond milk base infused with galangal, lemongrass, kefir lime leaves, lime and Thai chilies; Samovar chai; vegan matcha; and Beez Cheez with Laura Chenel goat cheese, honey and black pepper. // 1951 Telegraph Ave. (Oakland), littlegianticecream.com.
The OG of wacky flavors, Humphry Slocombe has been scooping delicious weirdness since 2008, earning an obsessive following among food lovers who aren't afraid of ingredients like prosciutto, ancho chilies, foie gras, candy cap mushrooms, and jalapeños in their ice cream. You might even say they started it—remember when the bourbon and corn flakes of Secret Breakfast seemed cray? Not so much anymore. This season, the team plays with pepper (pink, cubeb, and Szechuan) along with Maldon sea salt and a hint of vanilla. They've even partnered with Oaktown Spice Shop to create a new Togarashi Tea flavor with oolong tea ice cream and house-made sweet and spicy Shichimi Togarashi (Japanese 7 spice) caramel swirl. It'll be available at all locations through March. Unsure? Feel free to sample. "Welcome to our bizarre, delicious, frozen universe." // 2790A Harrison St. (Mission); One Ferry Building (Ferry Building); and 2335 Broadway (Oakland); humphryslocombe.com.
Tara's Organic Ice Cream
You've likely seen their lavender-hued bicycle carts circling around festivals and at Lake Merritt, doling out ice cream cups, gluten-free brownie sandwiches, and pops. Or perhaps you tasted the goods at 7x7's Big Eat Oakland last year. At Tara's Organic Ice Cream, all the ingredients—dairy, seasonal fruit, fresh herbs and spices—are sourced from local farms; and there are no emulsifiers or stabilizers. With 175 rotating flavors, Tara's slays with some of the most attention-grabbing options around. Swing by now for a taste of lemongrass; berbere (chile peppers, ginger, cloves, coriander, allspice, rue berries, and ajwain); cilantro; Chinese five spice; and avocado. Cones are hand rolled daily, with and without black sesame. // 3173 College Ave. (Berkeley); 4731 Telegraph Ave. (Oakland); tarasorganic.com.
Salt & Straw
Salt & Straw's five-course Thanksgiving ice cream dinner was seriously the strangest we've tried yet, with flavors including buttered mashed potatoes with gravy and salted caramel turkey—TBH, the latter was to die for. Built off a cashed-in 401K and a certifiable zeal for the stuff, Salt & Straw is a go-to for special flavors. Current choices include NeoCocoa's black sesame brittle and brown sugar; and Dandelion's Bean to Bar S'mores, the process of a complex process in which cacao hulls are soaked in ice cream and cocoa liquor for a smoky taste, before the cream is rolled with ground nibs, graham crackers, marshmallow and finished chocolate. // 586 Hayes St. (Hayes Valley) and 2201 Fillmore St. (Pacific Heights), saltandstraw.com.
Much has been said of the salted caramel at this quintessential SF scoop shop, but Bi-Rite Creamery is more complex than that. The first to use Straus Family Creamery's organic dairy, Bi-Rite rarely uses more than five ingredients but manages to maximize flavor. Current small batch offerings include orange cardamom and boozy Irish cream with chocolate cake. // 3692 18th St. and 550 Divisadero St., biritecreamery.com