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The Milky Way 

In which we troll the warm city for cooling scoops of ice cream

Wednesday, Aug 20 2003
Not that we don't like ice cream when baby, it's cold outside, but this curiously warm summer (which started early and seems bent on disproving the famously overquoted bon mot attributed to Mark Twain, i.e., "The coldest winter I ever spent was one summer in San Francisco") has encouraged us to order more ice cream treats than ever before. We like the cold stuff, whether it's ice cream, gelato (less butterfat than ice cream, but with a denser texture because less air is whipped into it), sorbet (water-based), sherbet (which can contain milk), frozen yogurt -- even, to our surprise, a soy-based ice cream we tasted recently. And we like it in cones, cups, sundaes, milkshakes, malts, ice cream sodas, any old way you choose it -- especially if we can enjoy our confections while walking down an interesting street. Licking a cone while window-shopping, yum (how sweetly coincidental that the French phrase for window-shopping translates as "window-licking").

The immediate environs of Mitchell's Ice Cream, on the same corner for 50 years (and still family-owned), are not particularly conducive to spaziering, that dulcet German word that can be translated as "walk" but more nearly implies a pleasant wandering. And the shop itself is quite minimalist in décor, even cheerless: Cones are dispensed from behind a Plexiglas shield, which makes the storefront look like an ice cream bank, or maybe even an ice cream jail. But the ice cream they're dispensing is, well, peerless. While you're eating it, it's the best, the creamiest you've ever tasted, with an ineffable silky texture. Among the 40 or so flavors available at any given time (chosen from a rotating, seasonal, larger list) are uncommon ones made with fruit imported directly from the Philippines, such as langka (jackfruit) and ube (purple yam), as well as the more expected chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and Thai tea (only kidding -- that it's more expected, that is. Thai tea is a Mitchell's flavor, as are chocolate caramel crackle, corn, and cheese).

When Cathy and I stopped by recently, we left with containers of avocado and buko (baby coconut) for me and macapuno (adult, sweeter coconut) and ube for her. I loved both the coconuts (well, I do love coconut), enjoyed the subtle yam, and was slightly puzzled by the avocado: pleasant, green, but not really, to my tongue, more than elusively reminiscent of the fruit. (Cathy, who recently painted a room rumba orange, thought of redoing it in Mitchell's-style colors: ube purple and avocado green.)

Maggie Mudd, which opened in January in Bernal Heights, is the very model of a modern ice cream parlor: Its walls are painted in tropical, citrusy colors of yellow and green, and it offers, as well as ice cream, gelato, sherbet, and frozen yogurt (most, but not all, house-made), its own line of soy cream. There are add-ons (fresh fruit and candies plus sauces, nuts, and whipped cream), and the staff will combine any or all of these into sundaes or smoothies. The day Peter and I were there, we waited more or less patiently while the guy ahead of us constructed an epochal, self-designed smoothie that contained almonds, coconut, Italian almond syrup, vanilla soy cream, and a mysterious ingredient called "immunity," while bemoaning the lack, that day, of butter pecan soy cream. (He told us it was a veggie smoothie. Sure it was.) I fell back on two favorites, a clean-tasting mint chocolate chip and the house-made peppermint candy. (Next time I might try a Mint Condition, a sundae with crème de menthe syrup and mint chocolate-covered espresso beans.) But the big surprise was how much I liked the soy cream; I tasted a spicy, full-flavored ginger, and Peter's rich chocolate cone. We enjoyed them while walking adorable Cortland Street, home to an excellent used bookstore, Red Hill Books (401 Cortland, 648-5331), and one of my favorite stores anywhere, Heartfelt (436 Cortland, 648-1380), a mix of gifts, objects for the home, things new, old, humorous, and beautiful -- I never go in without finding something I can't live without.

The venerable Fentons Creamery, recently reopened after a disastrous fire in November 2001, also lives on a delightful shopping street, Piedmont in Oakland, full of bookstores, antique stores, and gift shops. Grabbing a cone to go might seem best when confronted with the daunting, seemingly constant crowds waiting to be called for an actual ice-cream-parlor wire seat at a table (or, lucky you, a booth). But the place is huge, turnover is swift, and the famously messy Fentons sundaes (the house style demands overflowing bowls, dripping sauces) really demand that you be seated to deal with them.

Aline was thrilled that Fentons was jumping one weekday evening at 9:30 ("This is a whole lot of action for Oakland"), after we'd enjoyed, slightly to our surprise, Masked and Anonymous, the indie Around the World in Eighty Days as far as cameos are concerned (spot Ed Harris in blackface!), especially when the plot didn't intrude and we could just enjoy Bob Dylan's bouncy, airy manner and heel-to-toe walk. Fentons' famous crab salad sandwich (it's even mentioned on the shop's voice mail) is slightly scandalous at $12.95; if it isn't made from canned crab (minced almost to oblivion), the kitchen has devised a method to make it seem like it is. Aline's club was more satisfying, even with its unkosher (in two ways) addition of a slice of ham. (I liked the sweet pickle chips and the ridged potato chips that came alongside; "I'm a Jewish girl with catholic tastes that include goyische sandwiches," I said.) Fentons was never a family favorite, and our sundaes reminded me why: The caramel on mine was unpleasantly grainy, and the hot fudge sauce on Aline's Black and Tan was thin. Which is why I laughed when we passed a sign that read, "As good as you remember," as we left. Still, I enjoyed the high energy (we heard three renditions of "Happy Birthday" sung while we were there), the huge vintage photos on the wall (especially the one of a tiny boy dwarfed by a big sundae), and I'm sure I'll be back someday for a liverwurst sandwich, one of the place's special long hot dogs (served split on a toasted bun), or a vanilla milkshake.

The tiny Ciao Bella Gelato Co. on Harrison has no décor and roosts on a featureless downtown street, but it offers some of the best gelato and sorbet available anywhere. (The shop does a brisk business supplying them to high-end restaurants.) Among my favorites of its stunning, inventive array of flavors (five different vanillas alone, including French, Hawaiian, and Tahitian) are the malted milk ball gelato and the blood orange sorbet. Neither was available (except in pre-packed pints) when I stopped by the other day, perilously close to closing time, but the indulgence of a patient staffer enabled me to taste a variety of seasonal delights. There was an eerily accurate watermelon sorbet, a swooningly fragrant raspberry-hibiscus sorbet, and a hazelnut-chocolate gelato that tasted precisely like an Italian gianduja chocolate bar. Next time I'll go for the new, award-winning mint sorbet, or maybe the cinnamon caramel swirl gelato -- and it might be at the new Ciao Bella, due to open soon at the Ferry Building, with longer and more tourist-friendly hours.

Also expected to open shortly at the Ferry Building is the first-ever branch of Taylor's Refresher, the famous Napa Valley burger stand, which I mention only because the last time I lunched at one of its shady picnic tables, I enjoyed my thick mint chip milkshake, made with Double Rainbow ice cream, more than anything else we had -- yes, even though the cheeseburgers, soft-shell crab tacos, onion rings, and chili cheese fries were, well, delicious. But it was a very hot day.

Double Rainbow is the brand on offer, too, at the adorable Toy Boat Dessert Cafe, anchoring a corner of Clement with old-time soda fountain appeal for more than 20 years. The menu boasts an almost unbelievable amount of foodstuffs (good sandwiches, salads, breakfasts, coffees, and teas), and the staff is patient with you as you design what you want. There's plenty to look at, too, especially an amazing frieze of vintage and modern toys (some of which are for sale). I take my cone of Choconutty (chocolate chip, coconut, nuts -- terrific!) and lovely dulce de leche for a walk; if I don't finish it before I get to my favorite San Francisco bookstore, Green Apple Books (520 Clement, 386-6128), I'll continue to lick the windows -- and my cone -- and hit the books on the way back.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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