Seattle's ice cream scene is growing up: six years ago, only one of our eight favorite treats was around. The shops—and flavors—are new, but most of our favorites offer a spoonful of childhood-treat nostalgia, reminding us why ice cream and its relatives are so special—just try not to smile while playing with a raspberry sherbet push-up pop available at the otherwise oh-so-serious Parfait Organic Artisan Ice Cream.
As the scene has come of age in terms of the quantity of amazing ice cream shops, Seattle's best hot-weather sweets have gotten a bit more adult in other ways, too. We can't imagine many kids getting as excited about the green-tea shave ice at Marination Ma Kai as we did, and we wouldn't encourage them to try Hot Cakes's bourbon-spiked Mint Julep shake. But the most mature aspect of Seattle's best frozen desserts, across the board, is the very high quality of the treats now available around the city.
Six years ago, Seattle went crazy over its first small-batch ice cream shop. Now we're barely able to narrow our list down to eight favorite options. As we tasted our way around the city, we were most impressed with the places serving innovative flavors designed with taste in mind, not shock value. Sometimes the flavor that made the difference came from rich, local butterfat used in the base (as at Lick Pure Cream), other times from influences of a diverse population, as with ube flavor ice cream—a Filipino yam delight served at Full Tilt.
Consider this your guide to the best ice cream (and other frozen desserts) Seattle has to offer.
For Seattle's Best Gelato: Caramel and Fig Gelato at D'Ambrosio Gelato
In a time when it seems all caramel is salted, D'Ambrosio brings forward a more subtle, balanced version of the flavor. Subtle caramel flavor forms the base of the gelato, but instead of a palate-blowing handful of salt, it's dressed in gentle swirls of fig. The gelato is styled like the traditional Italian treat—soft and dense, with simple flavors and natural colors—but the ingredients are local. The gelato is made with milk from Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy, in Lynden, WA.
D'Ambrosio is at its best when the pure dairy flavor is allowed to shine through. The natural dairy sweetness keeps the ice cream from needing excess sugar. In the creamy world of caramel, this creates a mellow gelato, highlighted by fruity ribbons of fig.
For the Best Ice Cream: Toffee Ice Cream at Lick Pure Cream
When it comes to overall ice cream flavor and texture, Lick Pure Cream is superior to the rest. This shop also offers some of the most creative (ok, sometimes too creative) flavors. It takes about three seconds of looking at the menu board to see that there must be a former restaurant chef behind the options. Hidden inside a pizza shop in South Lake Union, Lick offers up everything from bacon-cornbread to strawberry-almond-buttercream.
After sampling a few of the best sounding flavors, we asked chef/owner/guy-manning-the-scoops, Michael Avery, what his favorite was. He steered us toward toffee, one of the simplest options on the list. This ice cream allows nuances of the house-made base (made from milk and a generous ratio of butterfat sourced from local farms) to shine through, while still offering fun pops of crunchy sweetness. Looking to try something a little more off the beaten path? The red ginger will wake up any sleeping taste buds with its one-two punch of hot and sweet. In all of Lick's ice creams, the constant is the ambitiously rich texture, with the kind of full-fat flavor and feel that would send Jillian Michaels screaming for her mom.
For True Scoop Shop Feel: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream at Husky Deli
You went to Husky Deli when you were a kid. It might not have been Husky Deli, it might have been Scoop D'Jour, or any other neighborhood scoop shop, but walking back in now, it's just the same: dual rows of big, white buckets behind the glass, perky teens offering samples of butter pecan or mint chocolate chip, kids running around high on sugar with faces covered in the melted remnants of an earlier treat. They don't make their ice cream base in-house because they don't have to: you're not there for the best-tasting ice cream; you're there because it's same place you sat as a four-year-old, with the same chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream dripping off your sugar cone and all over your sticky kid-hands.
The teenager in the t-shirt and shorts isn't the same one, but they're basically the same now as then—perky and fun, happy to offer as many tastes of ice cream before finally facing the cone conundrum. As all the new shops improve flavors and styles of ice cream over time, Husky Deli and its ilk show how a proper scoop shop keeps kids—and adults—happy.
For Dessert On A Stick: Blueberry Lemonade Ice Pop from Six Strawberries
This recommendation comes with a warning: don't eat this pop before speaking in public. The seeds of the fresh blueberry stick in your teeth, and the blue of the pop gives you the look of someone just rescued from a glacier. That said, summer wouldn't be the same without frozen treats on sticks, and Six Strawberries offers the best in Seattle. The dairy-free pops are sold from a traveling cooler hooked to the front of a bike (for the record, "it's not that hard to ride"), and feature local ingredients—often strawberries or blackberries from the same farms that sell next to them at local farmers markets—and regional favorites such as Theo Chocolate and CB's Nuts. The excellent blueberry lemonade ice pop uses a quick zing of tart lemon to tame the sweet, deeply-flavored blueberries. Already, that's two of the pop's four ingredients (the other two are sugar and water). The simplicity works in Six Strawberries' favor, letting the few, vibrant ingredients shine through.
Most Eclectic Ice Cream: Ube Ice Cream at Full Tilt
I have a suggestion for the folks at Full Tilt: add "(cake frosting)" under the ube flavor on your menu. The flavor—which tastes remarkably similar to the frosting on a child's birthday cake—and the vibrant purple color both come from the ube, a Filipino yam. Like taro, which is more common in Hawaiian and Chinese desserts, ube is a tuber whose flavors meld beautifully into after-dinner treats. The flavors that come out of the yam—a light, floral sweetness, and an almond-esque complexity—and into the ice cream really make you wonder if we, as a country, didn't go wrong by putting our sweet potatoes into savory dishes.
If the purple ice cream isn't already reminding you of the good ol' days, licking the beaters after mom made a batch of frosting, the array of pinball arcade games throughout Full Tilt's four Seattle scoop shops should help bring back happy memories.
For A Quick Trip to Hawaii: Shave Ice at Marination Ma Kai
The chilly waters of Elliott Bay are no substitute for the warm waves of the mid-Pacific, but Marination Ma Kai's shave ice will change the clock to island time—just like your last Hawaiian vacation. The beachside stand uses a special machine (brought over from Hawaii) to turn out colorful bowls of perfectly-shaved thin ice pieces, dressed in your choice of homemade syrup flavoring—green tea and lilikoi (passion fruit) are favorites. This is not simply a re-branded sno-cone, which grinds the ice, but rather an actual shaving of lacy ice bits—just like you'd find on the shores of Oahu. The nearly-microscopic strands of ice at Ma Kai absorbs the syrups, so that each bite is full of flavor, and there's no puddle of leftover syrup at the bottom.
In addition to the traditional shave ice, the cocktail bar side of the shack offers boozy variations—you want that mai tai in shave ice form, right?
For a Milkshake with a Buzz: Mint Julep Shake at Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery
One old school milkshake glass holds enough of Hot Cakes' mint julep shake to feed at least two people—but probably not enough bourbon to get one wasted. That said, when digging a straw into the indulgently thick shake at 10:30 at night, the Bulleit bourbon is a metaphoric cherry on top, adding wisps of vanilla and oak flavors. A straw proves futile in the face of the mountains of fresh mint, which is blended with the bourbon and some simple syrup into vanilla Bluebird ice cream. The drink is thick and sweet, balanced out by the zip of the bourbon and a few dashes of Scrappy's aromatic bitters. The onslaught of mint pushes the drink a little more garden cocktail than Kentucky Derby, but you lose none of its charm by enjoying each sip from a beautiful glass at the bar.
For Acting Like a Child: Raspberry Sherbet Push-up Pop at Parfait
Parfait's raspberry sherbet is no Flintstones, but it makes an even better push up pop. Parfait's Ballard gives off a serious, heartfelt feel—there are no cartoon cows or bright colors. The clean lines and brown color scheme leave the list of local ingredients (by farm) on the wall as the highlight. But step past the ice creams to the novelties case featuring fun updates on childhood treats. The macaron ice cream sandwich looks good, but everyone still in touch with their inner child will go straight for the push-up pops, less saccharinely sweet than the original, with the flavor instead focused on the vibrant fruit: Hayton Farm's raspberries or Birch-Hill Orchard's Meyer lemons.
The clear plastic contraption that forms the push-up pop is superior to the cardboard holder you remember, and never has misalignments that result in ice cream dripping down your hand—the quality and care put into the ice cream is clear in the presentation as well.