After two weeks of driving around the Bay Area in pursuit of the region’s best cold desserts, one thing is clearer to me than ever: There are innumerably delicious ways to keep cool and refreshed around here during the notoriously hot months of September and October, from traditional ice cream parlors to funky pop-ups and soft serve stations inside Ethiopian cafes. You just need to know where to look.
Stephanie De La Cruz of De La Creamery is like a muralist when it comes to imagining her Mexican-forward ice creams. With splashes of bright color, a palette of spices and seasonal fruits and a complex sense of flavor, De La Creamery has become one of the Bay Area’s premier ice cream pop-ups. Exhibit A: “DLC ice cream nachos” — a party of ice cream (I chose the “piñata” flavor, which is like birthday cake but with generous chunks of crushed candy), house-made cinnamon churro chips, spicy salsa macha de cacahuète, chocolate or strawberry sauce and whipped cream. I can honestly say it’s one of the most transcendent ice cream experiences I’ve had — cool, sweet, spicy, delectable. For a more traditionalist approach, try her take on flavors like avocado, horchata, elote and cafe de olla — all concocted in De La Cruz’s experimental kitchen at the legendary local creamery Loard’s.
If you grew up in the Bay Area, Double Rainbow likely carries some nostalgic value for you. Though the creamery began as a small-time operation on Coney Island in the 1950s, the business migrated west and opened its first brick-and-mortar in San Francisco in 1976. The original location no longer exists, but the retro outpost in Benicia has been rocking its oversized ice cream sundae–shaped chairs and neon signage since 1995. You can order a childhood favorite like the bubble gum flavor, or you can mix it up with a grilled s’mores ice cream sandwich. Various waffle cones (including birthday cake, red velvet and lavender) keep things interesting. And if you’re like me, you might opt for a fruit freeze featuring Italian ice from Gunther’s of Sacramento (offered only at this location). As a bonus, Benicia’s quiet downtown offers a breezy walk with a gorgeous view of the Carquinez Strait as it flows out into San Pablo Bay.
This tiny Hong Kongese storefront dishes out cold desserts two blocks from the Berkeley Art Museum. Though many Americans might be unaccustomed to ingredients like pomelo, durian and sago (tapioca pearl–like gelatinous balls), Hui Lau Shan’s lineup of icy treats shouldn’t go unnoticed. The flagship dessert is the Mango Chewy Ball — a bowl of mango slush, mango sorbet, fresh mango chunks and spoonfuls of its addicting “chewy balls,” which resemble mochi. For first-timers, the dessert is at once familiar and worlds apart from anything you’ve likely had — and is so good that it has spawned a series of local knockoffs.
On a sleepy, tree-lined stretch of Union Street where the trolley scoots up and down steep inclines, you’ll find Swensen’s, an old-fashioned creamery that has been serving treats since 1948. The small interior has a quaint European vibe (note: there is no seating inside or outside), and even on a random Tuesday afternoon, there will likely be a line snaking out the door. But it’s worth the trek. Specializing in unique, nostalgic flavors like Swiss Orange Chip, the shop has also expanded its offerings over the decades to include lychee, Turkish coffee and their most popular order, Sticky Peanut Butter. My personal go-to is the Bordeaux Cherry, which doubles its potency when it’s served as a milkshake or — checks notes — a root beer float.
Located near Fruitvale BART, this old-school dessert kingdom serves your standard range of Mexican treats: helados (Mexican ice cream), gelatina (Mexican jello) and mangonadas (a smoothie-like mango beverage caked with chamoy). You won’t be upset with any of those. However, if you truly want to taste Mexico as a cold treat, I suggest the tejuino — a cold beverage mixture of masa (the maize dough used to make pupusas and tamales), helado de limón and a dash of salt. Commonly sold from DIY roadside stands in Mexico, it’s not a particularly popular drink in the States, but at Nieves Cinco de Mayo, it’s a hit. You’ll feel transported to a different country inside the shop with its colorful decor, bustling bakery and outdoor patio, where you can sit on a park bench and let your daily worries melt away while sipping on a tangy, liquified tortilla.
If you’re in the mood for a lovingly sourced, vibrantly fresh, Asian- and Hawaiian-inspired ice cream experience, this Mission scoopery is for you. Pasteurized on-site and made with Straus barista milk, Garden Creamery’s rich seasonal flavors regularly rotate based on what’s available, while mainstay favorites include spiced chai, black sesame, genmaicha and vegan coconut pandan. They’re all tasty enough to elicit an out-of-body experience. When owners Erin and Donny aren’t at a farmer’s market handpicking ingredients, they’ll likely be behind the counter to tell you about their latest creations (see: this summer’s Li Hing Lychee Sorbet).
For all you soft-serve kings and queens, MyGoodness is swirling up a decadent storm along Lake Merritt’s shores. Launched in 2022, the small-scale business runs a long-term pop-up inside an Ethiopian cafe called Cafe Lakeview. What stands out here isn’t just the naked soft-serve ice cream; it’s the bold pairing of cold treats with other desserts like peach cobbler, strawberry pound cake, apple pie and German chocolate cake. Envision a generously piled cup of soft serve — with crumbling pieces of homemade apple pie or cake dumped on top. It’s not for the faint of mouth. During my visit, I opted for golden chunks of baklava — the flaky Turkish pastry layered with pistachios and honey — over classic vanilla.
For an Indian-owned creamery that proudly slings Southern Indian kapi (coffee) ice cream, swing by Koolfi in San Leandro. The specialty small-batch shop can scoop you anything from Mango Koolfi (made with Indian-imported mangoes) and Sweet Paan (betel leaf) to Bombay Butterscotch and Blueberry Goat Cheese. For an even more uniquely Indian experience, there’s the floral Gulab Jamun Sundae (in which the classic donut hole-esque dough ball marinated in sweet syrup gets buried under scoops of ice cream, rose petals and pistachios) or the Falooda Noodler (a sundae-like creation that includes rose water and vermicelli noodles).
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