My first taste of Salt & Straw came during a midsummer visit to my hometown of Portland, Ore. I arrived well-versed in the lore: The company started as a food cart with eight flavors in 2011, they moved to a storefront with lines streaming out the door, and they were now poised to expand even further [my trip came after the second and third Portland locations were announced, well before the L.A. store].
Still, I wasn’t ready for what I saw on Alberta Street. The buzz was audible from a block down. The line wrapped around the building. The way people talked about Salt & Straw reminded me of Seinfeld‘s Soup Nazi; there was a reverent mythos and a feeling that this was a destination of its own, a place you inked into your travel itinerary.
I ordered two scoops, sea salt with caramel ribbons and the flavor-of-the-month with a name pirated from a Portlandia sketch [Was it strawberry balsamic, tahini and cardamom, or just straight olive oil?]. The odder flavor descriptions allowed me to hang onto a few shreds of skepticism, but even those soon evaporated.
Upon first lick, Salt & Straw became the best ice cream I’d ever tasted.
In the years since, the creamery has continued to grow while honoring Portland with their flair for the weird (garam masala and cinnamon cauliflower, kimchi and rice, bratwurst and mustard). But here’s the kicker: Virtually everything they come up with works (besides the bratwurst). They emphasize complex flavors over saccharine sweetness and insist on bold thinking, making the Portland institution the perfect place to start our tour for National Creative Ice Cream Flavor Day.
- “Molé Rojo Flan.” Salt & Straw (Portland, Ore.). The ice cream is flavored with ancho chilies, cinnamon, and Mexican vanilla. The flan is made with Restaurante Guelaguetza‘s molé rojo and then mixed into the base in a classic bit of Salt & Straw mayhem.
- “Netflix.” Coolhaus (food trucks in NYC, L.A., Dallas, and Austin). Sometimes, the Coolhaus crew goes fully off-the-wall (fried chicken and waffles, Peking duck) but nine out of 10 times, the taste is worth the risk, like this white cheddar popcorn base with Doritos.
- “Chocolate Potato Chip.” Atticus Creamery + Pies (Los Angeles). Potato infused ice creams are officially becoming a thing. This rendition pairs potato chip base with swirls of chocolate, hitting that magic salty and sweet combo.
- “Rose and Pink Peppercorn.” Chauhan Ale & Masala House (Nashville, Tenn.). “Rose is a flavor profile very popular in India,” Chef Maneet Chauhan tells us. “But if it’s not used with a deft hand, people think they’re eating perfume.” Chauhan balances the rose with Madagascar vanilla and pink peppercorns, creating a sweet-spicy-floral hybrid.
- “Cookie Monster.” B. Candy (Orange County, Calif.). Even without the blue color, the inspiration for this one is obvious, the vanilla base is loaded with chocolate chip cookies, cookie dough, and crumbled Oreos.
- “Lychee Rose.” China Town Ice Cream Factory (Manhattan). Lychee fruit finally seems to be getting its well-deserved day in the North American sun. Here, the bright fruitiness of the lychee keeps the rose from being overpowering. Translation: It tastes good.
- “Chill and Caliente.” Ritz Carlton, South Beach (Miami). This key lime ice cream is infused with jalapeños, creating a sweet and spice, cool and hot hybrid that feels very South Beach.
- “Shark Sundae.” Playa Provisions (Los Angeles). Pastry chef Kristin Feuer pays homage to Shark Week with buttermint ice cream swirled with blue and green jimmies. “I’m a big fan of desserts that are nostalgic,” she told us, “and everything is better with sprinkles!”
- “Lemon-Ginger Frozen Yogurt.” True Food Kitchen (multiple locations). Combining lemon and ginger isn’t revolutionary, but the ambition is admirable. The flavor is based on Dr. Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet, which means, in this case, eating ice cream might technically be good for you.
- “Roasted Black Sesame.” Creamistry (locations throughout Southern California). Creamistry is inventive both in flavor and production; the ice cream is made-to-order using liquid nitrogen. The roasted black sesame has a toasted nuttiness that makes turning it into an ice cream flavor taste like a natural fit.
- “Whisper Creek.” Embers Ski Lodge (Nashville, Tenn.). What’s the point of listing creative ice cream flavors if there are none featuring booze? Chef Brett Corrieri agrees: “Whisper Creek‘s sipping cream is made with Tennessee whiskey and ingredients local to the area — caramel, pecan, persimmon, and fig. It’s a perfect ice cream base.”
- “Cinnamon Horchata.” Tillamook Ice Creamery (supermarkets). Besides Ben & Jerry’s mashups, most supermarket brands stick to the tried and true, so it’s nice to see Tillamook taking a shot with an agua frescas-inspired entry. Anyone who’s tasted a Styrofoam cup brimming with classic cinnamon-rice milk horchata can easily envision this experiment working wonderfully.