Dine About Oakland: Ice cream!

September 1, 2009

Man-oh-man was it hot this past weekend! Since it doesn’t get up into the 90s too often, it seemed like a good time for a shout out to East Bay ice cream. (Also, I had fun tasting a bunch of this in lieu of dinner on Friday night at the Eat Real Festival‘s ice cream happy hour, so it’s all fresh in my mind.)

Ice Cream
First up: Oakland’s own Fenton’s Creamery (of course!) Fenton’s, which first opened in 1894 at 41st and Howe, is old school ice cream—the kind you remember from your childhood (and your grandma’s childhood, and maybe even her grandma’s childhood….) The place reminds me of the New England Friendly’s restaurants back before they sold out and “upgraded” their menu, except with a crab melt instead of a clam roll—but then again, it is California! The ice cream is basic but solid—don’t go in expecting schmancy flavors or exotic ingredients, although the seasonal varieties do sometimes surprise. If you have (or go with) kids, the atmosphere and wide array of sundae confections is bound to be appealing. (If you don’t, be forewarned that the crowds of small people can be a little overwhelming.) The Fenton’s line can also be upwards of half an hour long, so be prepared to wait. In spite of the recession, the store has plans to expand across the street, which may help a bit—and it recently got a big boost from a cameo appearance in Pixar’s animated film Up.

Fentons, Pixar-style

Fenton's, Pixar-style

Then there’s Loard’s, another Oakland institution. The original Loard’s opened in Oakland in 1950, and today they’re all over Northern California. (The two Oakland locations are both on MacArthur in the Dimond and Millsmont, respectively—I think the Dimond store is the original.) You can also buy their ice cream at a number of local grocery stores, including Farmer Joe’s, where they manufacture the store-branded ice cream too. (There’s also a store in Orinda’s little downtown, which is a fun destination if you go cycling up in the Oakland hills.)

Last but not least on the old school front is Dreyer’s, where they were scooping ice cream in Grand Lake long before you could buy Dreyer’s (or Edy’s if you’re on the other side of the Rockies) in every grocery store in the nation. Fun trivia: Back east, Dreyer’s is known as Edy’s ice cream. This is not, in fact, because one company bought the other, as I assumed when I first moved to California and discovered that Edy’s had a doppelganger. When the company went national, they split the name in tribute to William Dreyer and Joseph Edy, the two founders, to avoid being confused with Breyers ice cream, which at the time was only available on the East Coast. The “Grand” in the name (the ice cream is known as Edy’s Grand or Dreyer’s Grand depending on where you live) is a tribute to Oakland’s own Grand Avenue, where the original shop was located. (Today they’re located on College Avenue, where they have a newly renovated scoop shop in front of their headquarters.) Among the Dreyer’s claims to fame is their invention of rocky road ice cream in 1929. (The claim is challenged, though: Fenton’s says it was actually their founder and friend of William Dreyer’s, George Farren, who invented rocky road, except that he used walnuts instead of almonds. Either way, it has Oakland roots!)

Gelato & Sorbet
New to Piedmont Avenue is Lush Gelato. It’s where Tango Gelato used to be, but is much, much better if our initial visit is representative. In spite of the gelato name, Lush actually serves Argentine helado, which is a variation on the same theme (and which, it turns out, I like much better than traditional gelato). The owners used to sell through the farmer’s market circuit, but lucky for us, they opened up shop on Piedmont earlier this summer. Yay!

For more traditional gelato, you can stop at Whole Foods on Harrison for Gelateria Naia—Naia is one of several independent businesses hiding inside the massive Whole Foods complex—or head over to Grand Lake for Gelato Firenze. Both serve tasty frozen goodness. Also in Grand Lake is newcomer Rainbow Italian Ice. We haven’t been to the shop yet so I’m withholding judgment till then, though the samples we had at a festival weren’t especially promising. (This is a good time to point out that I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut where Italian ice is an art form second only to pizza, so I’m probably pickier on that front than the average Californian—but the flavors we tried were all a little too artificially-flavored, even for Italian ice. We’ll give it another spin at the shop, though, since the reviews suggest they may have sorted this problem out.)

Then there are the Old Oakland, Montclair, Jack London,  and Temescal Farmers Markets, where Scream Sorbet is a regular. They’re fabulous if a bit pricey—but you really can’t beat the smooth consistency and fruity goodness. (You can also check them out at a number of other Bay Area farmers markets.) The only tricky part for us is that we’re usually in coffee-and-pastry mode on Sunday mornings; I was psyched to see them at the Best of the East Bay party at the Oakland Museum last month, when the timing was perfect for a sorbet treat.

A little further afield is Nieves Cinco de Mayo, a great little shop in the Fruitvale Public Market at Fruitvale BART. They make Mexican-style ice cream, which seems to be somewhere in between gelato and traditional ice cream. Flavors are all across the board, from garlic to dragonfruit to corn to cinnamon. They also pop up at festivals throughout the city, which is where I’ve had their ice cream. (We’ve had the real deal on the list to visit for a while, but whenever I’m over at Fruitvale BART I get sidetracked by Powderface beignets….)

Just a month ago, I was out east visiting friends who insisted that we needed to visit an amazing frozen yogurt shop in their neighborhood. I remember being surprised at how trendy tart frozen yogurt had become there—they had half a dozen shops to choose from. “I guess it hasn’t hit the Bay Area yet,” I sighed, noting that our only frozen yogurt spot, Yogurt De-Lite on Piedmont, was basically a throw-back to the 80’s TCBY-style yogurt craze.

Umm, I guess I just wasn’t paying attention. As soon as we got back from our trip, I started noticing frozen yogurt shops (or “coming soon!” signs) all over town. SoGreen Yogurt opened recently in City Center, and apparently Kiwitiwi has been operating near the Oakland end of the High Street bridge for a while. Looks like we’ll have Tutti Frutti on Piedmont Avenue soon. And there are a sea of new yogurt places near campus in Berkeley. So, yah. Tart frozen yogurt has officially arrived in the East Bay.

And just beyond the city limits…
Also want to give a nod to few other East Bay hot spots. While they’re not in Oakland, they’re pretty close and also worth a visit: Ici (near College and Ashby in Berkeley), Tara’s (near College and Alcatraz, also in Berkeley, though barely!), and Tucker’s (on Park Street in Alameda, just across the estuary from the Fruitvale). Ici goes for gourmet ice cream (and has the lines and prices you’d expect to go along with that), while Tara’s experiments with creative and unusual flavors a bit more. Tucker’s is classic old-school ice cream—“SUPERCREAMED!” as their slogan goes—and has been on Park Street for generations. They’re each wonderful in their own ways.


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