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.
Humphrey Slocombe: Pumpkin Nut
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.
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
Bi-Rite Creamery: Pumpkin Cheesecake
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.
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.