The summer months are upon us, even if farmers' markets are a more reliable indicator of season in this town than the weather report. And no matter how much fog rolls in over the next few months, summer means ice cream. San Francisco has no shortage of top-notch ice cream shops, featuring flavors made lovingly with the finest local, organic ingredients. But as much as I appreciate TCHO chocolate and peak-of-season strawberry, I was more interested in the weird flavors — the ones that don't sound like they could possibly be any good. So I went on an epic ice cream binge to find out.
I started at Humphry Slocombe in the Mission, probably the city's best-known ice creamery outside of Bi-Rite (2790 Harrison, 550-6971, HumphrySlocombe.com). The small storefront is as famous as much for the personality of owners Jake Godby and Sean Vahey as it is for Secret Breakfast, a brilliantly named and totally delicious flavor made with corn flakes and a slug of bourbon. But I've never had a bad scoop there, so it was with great trust that I ordered the salt and pepper ice cream, figuring it couldn't be that much different from the ubiquitous salted caramel. I was wrong. Imagine the coating on an order of salt-and-pepper crab at R & G Lounge, made over into a dessert. It was probably the closest my taste buds will ever come to a salt lick, and though it wasn't entirely unpleasant, I couldn't imagine a circumstance where a scoop wouldn't leave me craving something more dessert-like.
Looking for something a little less advanced, I headed down Guerrero to the charmingly old-fashioned Mitchell's, which has been an S.F. staple since 1952 (688 San Jose, 648-2300, MitchellsIceCream.com). Known for its tropical flavors, Mitchell's claims to be the first to serve mango ice cream in the city. But its claim to ice cream exotica is avocado, a pale green ice cream the color of pistachio. Unsurprisingly, avocado ice cream tastes like a perfectly ripe avocado, like extra-smooth guacamole without the kick, and though it's not at all sweet, the fruit is creamy enough to make it satisfying (it's a popular flavor in Mexico and Asia). I also sampled ube, purple yam, which started out as sweet and fresh as strawberry but settled into an appealing earthy flavor.
Next stop: the Dogpatch, and Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous (699 22nd, 970-0750). The quirky shop, run by husband-and-wife team Ian Flores and Annabelle Topacio, has rotating flavors like candied violet, ghost pepper, and Ballpark (Anchor Steam porter with peanuts and chocolate-covered pretzels). But the day I visited the offerings were more pedestrian. Pink Squirrel had an intriguing name but turned out to be a fairly standard almond ice cream reminiscent of marzipan, but the green tea and calamansi lime was a revelation. The two flavors aren't traditionally seen together, but proved to be an inspired duo — the dull woodsiness of green tea was enlivened with the bright tartness of the exotic citrus. By this point I was in danger of slipping into a dairy/sugar coma, but the combination was so interesting that I couldn't stop myself from eating the whole scoop.
DeLise Dessert Cafe is an anomaly in the tourist traps and chain restaurants of Fisherman's Wharf, an unassuming storefront with macarons and pastries in all manner of Asian-influenced flavors (327 Bay, 399-9694, DeliseSF.com). I was there for the pesto ice cream, something of a local legend, but was disappointed to find it was sold out. So I settled for the traffic-cone-orange Thai iced tea, which had a dusky smoothness, and a scoop of spicy chocolate sorbet whose sharp spice kicked in after the initial, intense burst of chocolate faded.
Over in the "cargo-tecture" Proxy project in Hayes Valley, Smitten Ice Cream's (432 Octavia, 863-1518, SmittenIceCream.com) well-crafted, daily-changing flavors usually skew toward the chocolate-vanilla-salted-caramel triad, but the ice cream shop has a built-in gimmick: Machines patented under the name "Brrr" use liquid nitrogen to transform scoops from liquid to frozen form in 60 seconds, resulting in intensely creamy ice cream with smaller ice crystals than the normal churn 'n' freeze methods. I ordered olive oil, which was grassy, herbal, and tasted exactly like drinking the stuff — not necessarily a bad thing, as anyone who's been to an olive oil tasting can attest. I wasn't too sold on the texture, though, which left a slick of oil in my mouth, or the lavender shortbread bits mixed in, which tasted, as so many lavender pastries do, like eating bits of potpourri.
Emboldened, I set out to my final destination: the foggy avenues of the outer Sunset and Polly Ann (3138 Noriega, 664-2472, PollyAnn.com), the storied home of the ice cream wheel that you can spin to randomly choose one of nearly 50 flavors that range from conventional to adventurous (red bean, durian). When I ordered a cup of durian, the Asian woman behind the counter asked twice if I knew what I was getting myself into, then shook her head in an I tried to warn you way and headed to the back to get me the scoop. All of the other flavors are kept in the front case, and when she handed me the cup of neon-yellow durian I understood why it was quarantined — the fruit's rotten, garbage-y smell was overpowering even from a few paces away. Durian is so strong it's banned in certain public areas in Southeast Asia, and though I've been told its unique flavor is an acquired taste, I've never been sure why you'd ever want to acquire it. The flavor is somewhere on the spectrum between rotting flesh and sweaty socks; one bite was enough to activate my gag reflex, and I was glad I'd gotten a scoop of the sweet, lightly floral honeydew to act as a chaser.
Then again, I wasn't sure what I expected. The great pleasure of high-quality ice cream is that it tastes purely like the ingredients it's made from. When they're good, unusual ice creams highlight flavors you'd never expect to find in dessert, or together. When they're not, you only have yourself to blame for not ordering something more vanilla.