Artisanal Ice Cream Is Taking Over L.A.
Some of L.A.'s hottest after-dinner spots are also its coldest spots.
"I would say the rise of great ice cream mirrors the rise of great food in L.A.," says Michael Palmer, owner of McConnell's Fine Ice Creams, a Santa Barbara-based churner that has Los Angeles outposts at Downtown's Grand Central Market and in Studio City and Los Feliz.
L.A.'s new crop of artisanal ice cream shops has created a late-night scene unlike anything else in the city. Go to Salt & Straw in otherwise sleepy Larchmont Village at 10:45 on a weeknight and you'll likely see a buzzing crowd outside, wrapped around stanchions, making new friends, chatting about what flavors they're going to sample once they get inside.
And no matter how big the line gets, Salt & Straw will let you sample and sample and sample before you decide what to order.
"We're surprised and really honored that people want to spend their evenings here," says Salt & Straw co-founder Kim Malek. "We have a rule: You can only try 17 flavors. That's all of them."
Salt & Straw, a Portland-based business that debuted in Larchmont Village in 2014 and has since added L.A. locations in Studio City, the Arts District, Venice and West Hollywood, is part of a sweet trend. Many of the country's most prominent ice cream makers have set up multiple scoop shops in L.A., and they're loading their cups and cones with widely creative flavors that often weave in savory and spicy notes.
Salt & Straw, which releases limited-edition flavors each month, has collaborated on ice cream concoctions with local chefs like Kogi's Roy Choi (Korean fluffernutter), The Bellwether's Ted Hopson (mascarpone tomato sherbet with candied Calabrian chiles) and Border Grill's Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (green corn tamales). This month, Salt & Straw has resurrected some of its greatest-hit flavors like chocolate caramel potato chip cupcake and rosewater, saffron and pistachios.
Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, which opened its Venice shop in January and also has a Los Feliz shop, makes ice cream that might be best described as art-directed. Founder Jeni Britton Bauer once created a collection of ice cream based on what she thought colors might taste like. More recently, for the Winter 2016 American Licks: Ice Cream as a Living Artifact collection, Jeni's celebrated and updated classic flavors like mint chip and cherries jubilee.
"I'm more inspired by color and art, and classic pairings like cream cheese and walnuts, than I even am by the culinary world," Britton Bauer says.
Jeni's, which is based in Columbus and uses carefully sourced Ohio milk, has been shipping ice cream to L.A. markets since 2004 but didn't open an L.A. scoop shop until 2015. Britton Bauer had gotten to know L.A. while on her book tours and other trips, when she was inspired by visiting The Getty Museum and seeing the animatronic animals at Clifton's Cafeteria.
Salt & Straw has also played up a connection between art and artisanal ice cream. To celebrate the chain's Arts District opening, co-founder and creative director Tyler Malek worked with artist Scott Hove to create a flavor called Dualpolitan, packaged in a "cake art" carton that mimicked Hove's sculptures.
Malek is also in the process of developing ice cream flavors with Inner City Arts, a program for children in downtown's Skid Row. "We're working with a sculpting class, following a class over two months," he says, and adds that children often have better ideas than professional chefs. "They're designing and sculpting different versions of ice cream art. We're going to design flavors based on the art." Malek meets with the students every couple of weeks, talks to them about creativity and thinks about different ways to tell their stories and bring their flavors to life.
Britton Bauer stresses that opening an ice cream shop is about creating a community. "Ice cream brings people together, people who don't know each other, who have more to learn about each other," she says. "We totally see the long lines, that's the fun part. We don't want to get rid of the line. That's part of the experience."
That line at Jeni's might move a little slowly during weekend days when children ask to try the purple ice cream and their parents hesitate because they're not sure lavender will suit a preschool palate. It might drag a bit when the employee behind the counter tells kids that vanilla is also a flower, so maybe they'd like to try that along with the purple flavor. The line might crawl at night as customers stop to ponder how the Bangkok peanut flavor really does remind them of pad Thai.
"The demographics are 5 to 80," Palmer says of what he's seen at McConnell's. "Ice cream is about sense memory. Everybody has a story, a memory about ice cream. It's one of those products that brings people together universally."
So Palmer designed his shops to encourage conversation, with "different zones to sit and engage with each other."
"It's about lingering over ice cream," Palmer says. "Ice cream is a great way to end your night. It's a very communal endeavor. I want this to be about creating community and looking across the aisle and people saying, 'Oh my God, have you had this?' We design our stores to foster that, for people to sit down and eat their ice cream for as long as they please."
Spend a little time at these ice cream shops and you will indeed see people lingering, starting conversations with other visitors about things like how pleasantly dense and satisfying McConnell's ice cream is, how the eureka lemon and marionberries flavor is just the right amount of sour, how the whiskey and pecan pralines flavor is smoky and salty. And then you might even see some of these customers get back in line for more.
Other ice cream makers are setting up shop as well. Santa Barbara-based Rori's Artisanal Creamery, which has a root beer float flavor (with sassafras, birch and vanilla) that you can take to the next level by putting into an actual root beer float, has opened in Santa Monica and West Hollywood. Smitten Ice Cream, with its churned-to-order liquid-nitrogen treats that originated on a wagon cart in San Francisco, has opened in El Segundo and will soon be scooping its seasonal flavors like sweet corn and berries at a Silverlake shop. Brooklyn's Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, with special flavors like labneh with pistachio and candied orange, has a roving ice cream truck in L.A. along with shops in the Arts District, Culver City and Franklin Village. The L.A.-based Wanderlust Creamery, with signature flavors like sticky rice and mango, opened in Atwater Village this week, adding to a growing empire that includes a Tarzana store and a popular stand at downtown's Smorgasburg food market.
Los Angeles, Palmer says, "is certainly ground zero for great ice cream."