Along with the summer temperatures, unusual ice cream flavors seem to be on the rise all over Los Angeles. Traditionalists need not fret: Plenty of Los Angeles ice cream shops are still churning out incredible classics and fail-safe flavors. But there’s a new wave of ice cream innovation coming through, involving vegetables, meats, herbs and spices.
“Every four weeks we change out our menu and try to use each season as a way to push the expectations of what ice cream can be,” said Salt & Straw head ice cream maker Tyler Malek. That push has lead to the creation of unusual ice cream concoctions like strawberry cilantro lime cheesecake, or green fennel and maple. And there's no attempt to hide unusual ingredients, either.
“We always deliver on the flavor,” Malek said. “Fennel will taste like fennel, tomato like tomato, etc. But the flavors always meld in ways that are incredibly tasty.”
The trick to changing the ice cream game may be in reshaping the way ingredients are seen. “Fennel can be so floral, and using the entire plant, stem to stern, gives a huge spectrum of beautiful flavor notes that is often overlooked when you’re strictly thinking about it as a savory ingredient,” said Malek.
But the trend spans beyond seasonally driven vegetable flavors into the realm of savory protein touches — and no, we don’t mean bacon.
At Chaya Downtown, chef Joji Inoue has put an uni ice cream sandwich on the menu, riffing on the traditional Japanese dessert monaka, which is made with crisp mochi wafers sandwiching some sort of filling.
“Uni is one of my favorite ingredients and flavors to work with, and is very popular with our guests,” said Inoue. “We kept the uni subtle for this. Guests have really been enjoying it so far.”
Over in Culver City, chef Chris Oh at Hanjip put together some ice cream sandwiches in partnership with Coolhaus. They're inspired by Korean foods that he loves. His favorite of the new trio is the Hawaiian Pizza, which features pineapple ice cream with chunks of Spam smashed between two white chocolate macadamia nut cookies.
Despite the big portions of Spam in there, the bright, sweet pineapple is the flavor that shines the most.
According to Inoue, this concept isn’t groundbreaking. It’s just less common for Americans.
“The idea of a savory treat is not new, and Japanese food is known for umami, so this twist on a monaka seemed to be an obvious one,” he said.
Unusual flavors tend to be great marketing tools. Malek said that customers wait in front of the shop before new flavors are launched. It doesn’t matter if customers even buy the wild ice creams.
“Unique flavors are always an attraction. Some sell really well and some don’t,” said Ryan Morgan, experience leader at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. “But if they don’t, they bring people inside to taste them even if they just end up getting a scoop of salty caramel.”
Perhaps that’s why places like Scoops Westside will always feature crowd pleasers such as mint chocolate alongside edgier options like chili bourbon, saffron honey, strawberry basil seeds and makgeolli banana pecan. (Makgeolli is a sweet Korean liquor made from rice and yeast.)
So why has it taken so long for unusual ice cream flavors to make their mark on the industry?
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“Ice cream is such a nostalgic dessert, and it can be hard to get away from your favorite flavors as a child,” Oh said. “People seem to have their go-tos with ice cream, and don’t always want to mix it up. I think lately though, more places ... are realizing that ice cream provides a neutral canvas to experiment with, and people are excited to mix it up.”
If you, too, want to mix it up, here’s where to start:
Green fennel & maple at Salt & Straw
240 N. Larchmont Blvd., Windsor Square (multiple locations); (323) 466-0485, saltandstraw.com.
Hawaiian pizza at Hanjip
3829 Main St., Culver City; (323) 720-8804, hanjip.com.
Birch and marshmallow at Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams
1954 Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz; (323) 928-2668, jenis.com.
Uni ice cream sandwich at Chaya Downtown
525 S. Flower St., Downtown (multiple locations); (213) 236-9577, thechaya.com.
Chili bourbon at Scoops Westside
3400 Overland Ave., Palms; (323) 405-7055, scoopswestside.com.