It's pumpkin time! The force of the pumpkin spice latte and all its cinnamon-flavored brethren is strong right now. (Surely the Meta-Pumpkin Award goes to the Pumpkin Spiced Pumpkin Seeds.) But if you really want pumpkin bliss, skip the lattes, the juices, the pumpkin soups served in a pumpkin, and go straight for pumpkin ice cream. This flavor appears in late September or early October, and fades away by late December, reaching its height of popularity in the orange-hued moment between Halloween and Thanksgiving. In honor of the season, we braved the recent rains and taste-tested our way around the Bay to find the best pumpkin ice creams on offer.
Three years ago, when we last did a pumpkin ice-cream round-up, plain old pumpkin was the scoop du jour. For the artisan creameries in 2016, pumpkin has gone rococco, pebbled with nuts and cookie chunks, trying hard to be all-in-one reproductions of pumpkin pie or pumpkin cheesecake.
But are they better? Can anything be better than a scoop of Mitchell's pumpkin ice cream atop a scoop of their Mexican chocolate, still the gold standard of frozen fall desserts? After crisscrossing the city, and the bay, on Muni and BART, we can say: actually, no. The old-school scoop shops--Joe's in the Richmond, Swensen's in Russian Hill--are, we discovered, are the ones making the best straight-up, lick-it-til-it's-gone pumpkin ice creams this year. If you haven't gone to an ice cream shop without an Instagram feed lately, you're missing out.
A note on sizing: If these scoops in these pictures look particularly small, they are. In the interest of taste-testing (and not dying from ice cream overload), we asked for the smallest option available, usually a "junior" or "kid's-size" cone or cup. A regular single scoop would be more generous.
Joe's Ice Cream: Pumpkin
For generations of Richmond kids, ice cream means a trip to Joe's. It's a big, bright place with burgers on one side, ice cream on the other, where longtime owner Mutsuhiko Murashige has been making buckets of sweet, creamy treats since he bought the place in 1979, using the same recipes that had been with the business since the 1950s. Pumpkin is the featured flavor right now, and it's pretty much perfect: fluffy and creamy, judiciously nutmegged, with flecks of spice and shreds of pumpkin fiber.
Born-and-bred San Franciscans, even those who have long decamped for New York City or the Oakland hills, come down heavily in favor of Swensen's. While the company is now an international chain, the original San Francisco shop has remained separate from the rest of the franchise, and still makes its own ice cream. Including pumpkin, of course, and it's just the way you remember it: velvety smooth, pumpkin-forward and gently spiced, all autumn in a lick.
Curbside Creamery: Vegan Pumpkin Pie
This stylish little shop on Temescal Alley has made a name for itself among Oakland's hip vegan set. On any given day, close to half of Curbside's offerings are dairy-free but delicious, with many of the vegan versions made with a rich, housemade cashew base that provides a smooth, creamy texture. As a result, their vegan pumpkin pie ice cream deserves love from omnivores and vegans alike, thanks to its well-rounded pumpkin flavor punched up with plenty of autumn spices and molasses. It's also available as an ice cream sandwich with vegan shortbread cookies.
Little Giant Ice Cream: Pumpkin Pie
This artisanal ice cream shop--one of the few in the Bay Area to make its own ice cream base--started in Oakland but has now expanded to the FiDi in SF. Flavors are cheeky and often boozy, like the popular Dirty South (caramel ice cream with candied pecans and whiskey caramel), but the pumpkin pie is straight-up tasty pumpkin, bright orange in color with loads of zippy fresh-squash flavor. But the soggy hunks of cookie-crust scattered throughout are a needless distraction. Pumpkin pie is all about the filling, and this ice cream should be, too.