Bay Area Bites Guide: Pumpkin Ice Cream Round Up

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Joe's Cone (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

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.

Curbside Creamery Skeleton with Pumpkins
Curbside Creamery Skeleton with Pumpkins (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

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

Joe's Pumpkin Ice Cream Cone
Joe's Pumpkin Ice Cream Cone (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

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.

Exterior of Joe's Ice Cream
Exterior of Joe's Ice Cream (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

Joe's Ice Cream
5420 Geary Blvd [Map]
San Francisco CA 94121
Ph: (415) 751-1950
Hours: Mon-Thu 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat 11am-11pm; Sun 12pm-8pm
Facebook: Joe's Ice Cream

Swensen's: Pumpkin

Swensen's Pumpkin Cone
Swensen's Pumpkin Cone (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

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.

Swensen Menu
Swensen Menu (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

1999 Hyde St [Map]
San Francisco CA 94109
Ph: (415) 775-6818
Hours: Mon-Sun 12pm-10pm
Twitter: @swensens

Curbside Creamery: Vegan Pumpkin Pie

Curbside Creamery's vegan pumpkin pie ice cream
Curbside Creamery's vegan pumpkin pie ice cream (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

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.

Curbside scooper Lisa Wentworth displays the vegan pumpkin pie ice cream sandwich
Curbside scooper Lisa Wentworth displays the vegan pumpkin pie ice cream sandwich (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

Curbside Creamery
482 49th St (Temescal Alley) [Map]
Oakland, CA 94609
Ph: (510) 250-9804
Hours: Mon-Sun 12pm-10pm
Facebook: Curbside Creamery
Twitter: @CurbsideCreamry

Little Giant Ice Cream: Pumpkin Pie

Little Giant Pumpkin Pie Cup
Little Giant Pumpkin Pie Cup (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

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.

Scooping at Little Giant in downtown San Francisco
Scooping at Little Giant in downtown San Francisco (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

Little Giant Ice Cream
214 Sutter St [Map]
San Francisco, CA 94108
Ph: (510) 922-1426
Hours: Mon-Sat 12pm-7pm


1951 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94612 [Map]
Ph. (510) 922-1426
Hours: Daily, 1pm-9pm
Facebook: Little Giant Ice Cream
Twitter: @LittleGiant_IC

Humphrey Slocombe: Pumpkin Nut

Humphry Slocombe Pumpkin Nut Cone
Humphry Slocombe Pumpkin Nut Cone

Is it worth skipping favorites like Secret Breakfast or Vietnamese Coffee for the seasonal Pumpkin Nut? Well, how pebbly do you like your ice cream, and how much do you love hazelnuts? If the answer is "like a bucket of gravel, baby" and "OMG hazelnuts yessssss" then by all means, go for it. "Nutty Pumpkin" would be a better moniker for this, because the pumpkin is a mere muted background for a LOT of slightly salty hazelnut bits. Personally, I found the texture is distracting, raspy where I expected smooth, without the treasure-hunting appeal of say, the distinct chunks of walnut or marshmallow in a scoop of rocky road. There's also a liquid option, in the shape of a pumpkin-walnut milkshake.

Daily flavors at Humphry Slocombe in the Ferry Building
Daily flavors at Humphry Slocombe in the Ferry Building (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

Humphry Slocombe
1 Ferry Building [Map]
San Francisco CA 94111
Ph: (415) 550-6971
Hours: Mon-Fri 11am-9pm; Sat 8am-9pm; Sun 11am-9pm
2790 Harrison St. [Map]
San Francisco CA 94110
Ph: (415) 550-6971
Hours: Mon-Thu 1pm-11pm; Fri-Sun 12pm-11pm
Facebook: Humphry Slocombe
Twitter: @humphryslocombe

Bi-Rite Creamery: Pumpkin Cheesecake

Bi-Rite Pumpkin Cheesecake Cone
Bi-Rite Pumpkin Cheesecake Cone (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

Taste this blindfolded, and you'll know instantly that cheesecake is the goal here: the ice cream is densely rich and tangy, thickly scattered with bits of graham cracker crust. Because it's Bi-Rite, the graham crackers are housemade and delicious, but they almost overwhelm the ice cream, and they definitely overwhelm whatever mild pumpkin flavor that hasn't already been clobbered by the cheesecake taste. If you want a tangy pumpkin combo, try a twist of pumpkin and creme fraiche soft-serve, available Wednesdays only at the 18th Street soft-serve window a few doors east of the main ice cream shop.

Waiting for cones at Bi-Rite on Divisadero
Waiting for cones at Bi-Rite on Divisadero (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

Bi-Rite Creamery
550 Divisadero [Map]
San Francisco CA 94117
Ph: (415) 551-7900
Hours: Mon-Sun, 9am-9pm

3692 18th St. [Map]
San Francisco CA 94110
Ph: (415) 626-5600
Hours: Sun-Thu 11am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11am-11pm
Facebook: Bi-Rite Creamery
Twitter: @BiRiteCreamery

It's-It: Pumpkin

It's-It Packaging
It's-It Packaging (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

But what about the ice cream case of your local corner store? If you're lucky, down among the Nutty Buddys and Haagen-Daz cups is the one and only real San Francisco treat: not just an It's-It, but a pumpkin It's-It. It has the same chocolate coating, the same frozen oatmeal cookies, but the ice cream is a creamy pumpkin, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, which balances particularly well with the encompassing cookies. As corner-store frozen desserts go, it's realer than most, made with milk, cream, sugar, and actual pumpkin, with a dash of annato and turmeric for color. While we can't vouch for every bodega's offerings, an unscientific stroll and poll revealed good stashes on offer at Gino's Deli in Pacific Heights, the Polk and Green Market in Russian Hill, and Harvest Hills Market in Bernal Heights, with other unconfirmed sightings throughout the city.

It's-It Pumpkin Ice Cream Sandwich
It's-It Pumpkin Ice Cream Sandwich (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)


Facebook: It's-It
Twitter: @ItsItIceCream
Instagram: itsiticecream