Easier to eat than ice cream, churned out by impressive rumbling machines, soft serve has an air of comforting nostalgia, whether you associate it with county fairs or slurping it down in the Costco food court after a $1 hotdog. While ice cream has seemingly reached peak fanciness (foie gras ice cream anyone?) it’s more relaxed cousin is still on the rise, with, interesting, weird presentations of soft serve popping up at restaurants in the East Bay. Here’s a roundup of seven soft serve options in the East Bay, from buffalo milk soft serve at Cheeseboard to the classic dipped cone at Foster’s Freeze. And if we missed your favorite, let us know in the comments.
Cheese Board Pizza Collective gets a lot of attention for the pizza, and deservedly so: the distinctive crispy chewy sourdough crust topped with a selection of peak season vegetables and carefully selected cheeses is as impressive as the sizable lines stretching out its doors. Yet they deserve equal praise for the non-pizza options, which have expanded through an increasing number of intriguing pop-ups: this year has brought chilaquiles, doughnuts and high tea to the North Berkeley location. One of their newest additions is more permanent: a soft serve machine churning out perfect swirls of soft serve made from buffalo milk from Petaluma’s Double 8 Dairy. Why buffalo milk? It’s the richest animal milk, lending it a luscious creaminess and a clean flavor. They offer the standard soft serve flavor trifecta--vanilla, chocolate and swirl--and it’s very good, rich clean and sweet. And, thankfully, it's not a pop-up: Cheeseboard says they’re planning to offer it every day.
Cheese Board Pizza Collective
512 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA [map]
Ph: (510) 549-3055
Hours: Closed Mon and Sun; Tue-Sat 11:30am-3pm, 4:30pm-8pm
Facebook: The Cheese Board Collective
Price Range: $ (entrees under $10)
Temescal Alley’s Curbside Creamery started as a farmers' markets favorite where owner Tori Wentworth would schlep that week’s flavors on a trike to various markets around the Bay Area. Last year, she opened up a brick and mortar shop, featuring an approachable mix of classic options and more far out flavors like Thai iced tea and vanilla malt ball. They’re inclusive, too, featuring a wide selection of nut and coconut-based vegan ice creams and gluten-free cones. A few months ago, they got a soft serve machine and now offer two flavors daily--one of which, they promise, will always be a vegan option. A recent option, a dark chocolate vegan soft serve, had a nutty sweetness from its cashew base and a luxuriously thick texture--I turned my spoon upside down and nothing dripped off--that made for a decadent, ever so slightly healthier twist on an old favorite.
Albany’s Boss is like a fancier guilt-free version of fast-food chains you ate at growing up. The meat is sustainably raised, there’s gluten-free bread, and even the mayo is non-GMO. And their soft serve, which comes either in a cone or blended into a milkshake has an appropriately high class pedigree as well: the dairy comes from Petaluma’s Straus Family Creamery, the country’s first 100% organic creamery. The soft serve, like most menu items, is simple and familiar. A cone of swirl simply tastes good: a rich, creamy soft serve that tastes like the quality dairy it’s made from, without any of the dubious powders or mixes that go into the old school machines.
Timeless Coffee Roasters is Piedmont Avenue’s best secretly vegan coffee shop, a classy joint filled with dark wood, gleaming pastry cases and exactly zero mentions of the words “vegan” or “cruelty-free.” In addition to the excellent roasted in-house coffee and pastry options (no, that’s not actually sausage in the sausage empanada), they offer rotating flavors of soft serve, served plain, in an affogato or as part of an extravagant float. When I visited, they had two soft serve options, a soy-based vanilla and a mango pineapple made of just fruit, sugar and water. The fruit option I had was a sunny yellow color and a bright, fruit forward taste. The texture was a marvel, remarkably smooth and non-icy, and the flavor was just sweet enough, letting the already sweet tropical fruit flavor shine.
Timeless Coffee Roasters
4252 Piedmont Ave, Oakland [map]
Ph: 510) 985-1360
Hours: Mon-Fri 7am-6pm; Sat-Sun 8am-6pm
Facebook: Timeless Coffee Roastery and Bakery
Price Range: $ (entrees under $10)
California chain Fosters Freeze, which has locations in Alameda and Berkeley, serves food, but it seems like an afterthought. Everyone knows that ice cream is what they do best--after all, their logo is a cheerful, anthropomorphized soft serve cone named Little Foster. Stalwartly refusing to serve anything local, organic or good for you, what Fosters Freeze does offer is giant portions, low prices, and for adults, a hearty serving of nostalgia (the chain has been around the 1940s). The soft serve is very different than newer, fancier options, with a thin texture and a noticeably large amount of sugar. There’s not a lot of difference in taste between the chocolate and vanilla in a swirl cone: if you shut your eyes you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, and they instead combine into a tooth-achingly sweet homogeneous chocolate vanilla combination.
But oh, then there’s the drip. For a mere 50 cents your cone is upended into a pot of chocolate, emerging with a thin delicate chocolate shell that produces a delightful, delicate crunch. It’s a marvel of engineering that always produces a picture perfect cone.
Yes, Fosters' decor is dated, full of orange plastic booths and yellow chandeliers, and their soft serve might be slightly bitter if you think about it too long. But does it matter? On a recent warm Sunday afternoon, Fosters Freeze is packed: with families arguing over who ate the Reese’s chunks out of a Blizzard, groups of adults discussing a friend’s new play, and tweens waiting outside with their beach cruisers, all happily eating towering cones of soft serve that’s cold, sweet and cheap. And really, on a hot summer day, what more do you need?
Plum Bar’s dessert menu is entirely composed of soft serve, served in sophisticated upgrades of classic childhood combinations. The soft serve they offer is barely sweet, with pure chocolate or vanilla flavors, making it the perfect base for their sundaes: mint chocolate, chocolate chip cookie, s'mores. A sticky toffee sundae could have easily been too sweet, but was instead remarkably balanced, with a pleasant amount of crunch from the toffee and chocolate shell and a restrained salted caramel topping the chocolate and vanilla swirled soft serve. A more adult option is the affogato, which offers up a playful take on the classic combo. The vanilla soft serve isn’t topped with hot espresso, but is instead paired with housemade coffee bitters, coffee-dripped vodka, and New Orleans coffee liqueur from Alameda’s St. George Spirits. It’s creamy, rich and bitter, a classy decadent finish.
Plum Bar + Restaurant
2216 Broadway, Oakland [map]
Ph: (510) 444-7586
Hours: Mon-Thur 11:30am-12am, Fri 11:30am-2am, Sat 5pm-2am, Closed Sun
Facebook: Plum Bar & Restaurant
Price Range: $$ (entrees under $20)
Like the rest of the menu, Hawker Fare’s dessert menu is filled with playful dishes that mix familiar and more obscure ingredients--yes, that is sticky rice topped with durian ice cream. Soft serve makes up the bulk of the list, whether in a cone, sundae or in a condensed milk and Thai coffee affogato. Like the main dishes, you can tell how much attention is paid to layering flavors and textures in a way that’s familiar yet unexpected: the Hawker Sundae features delightfully crunchy puffed rice, sweet salted palm sugar caramel, chewy red beans, and a jasmine whipped cream (a surprisingly perfect way to highlight jasmine’s delicate flavor). Another sundae does the same trick of serving familiar ingredients in unfamiliar formats, featuring an Ovaltine hot fudge sauce that’s surprisingly subtle. Again, there are elements of crunch and chewiness, this time from peanuts and palm seeds.