Austin's ice cream options were once disappointing, but now the city's frozen dessert scene is undergoing a renaissance. In fact, about half of the city's best ice cream options are at establishments less than five years old. As the rest of country continues to up its ice cream game with small batch creameries using better ingredients, new techniques, and bolder recipes, so too does Austin. Local ice cream shops are busy experimenting with unusual flavors and kooky toppings, whether they're making soft serve, gelato, frozen custard, or ice cream sandwiches. Want your ice cream from a food truck? We've got that too.
On a hot day in Texas, ice cream is essential, and there's never been a better time to eat it. Here's where to get the best Austin has to offer.
Soft Serve and Crazy Toppings: Cow Tipping Creamery
This family-owned University area truck is known for creamy soft serve ice cream dotted with vanilla bean and covered in an array of whimsical toppings. The owners achieve their famously intense vanilla flavor via a double dose: they slice and scrape whole Madagascar vanilla beans and soak them for 24 hours in the soft serve base, then add vanilla extract to amplify the floral essence.
But even more than the deliciously vanilla-laced base, most folks come to CTC because of the wacky sundae toppings. Folks in line gawk at the menu for several minutes, culling through the seemingly endless list of combinations. A good first bet is the "From Texas with Love": soft serve covered with Dr. Pepper cherry sauce, honeyed pecans, orange sugar crystals, and a proprietary creation called Frito saltine toffee bark. Sometimes called 'Chocolate Crack', homemade toffee is poured over a layer of saltine crackers and then topped with dark chocolate...but here, it also gets a roll in crumbled Fritos for the ultimate Texas-style sweet-salty combination.
On a sweltering summer day, choose the lighter 'High Tea' cone, featuring a homemade lemon curd that's thinned a bit for easy pouring. The curd's delicious tartness pairs well with the creamy vanilla soft serve, crushed tea biscuits, and crunchy honey dust, a crumbled and pearlized honeycomb that is popular in many Asian desserts.
Heads up, though: When Texas summer temperatures climb too high, the truck's ice cream maker sometimes can't hack it and they close without warning. Be sure to check their Facebook feed or call ahead if you're making a special trip.
Best Gelato: Dolce Neve
The cloud-like creations at this shiny new gelato shop are always offered in a few traditional Italian flavors like hazelnut, along with Texas-inspired gelati like sweet potato or goat cheese and pecan. The recipes are based on whole milk and cream from nearby County Line Farms, and in every batch, the clean flavors of organic milk and cream are on the forefront, followed by just the right touch of sweetness.
Don't miss the summery peach and fromage blanc gelato—it captures the bright essence of the sun-ripened Hill Country fruit.
Frozen Custard: Yeti Frozen Custard
This roving trailer (easily tracked down on their website) specializes in the dairy-rich frozen custard beloved by Midwestern transplants. Owner (and culinary school graduate) Andrea Ramos experiments with a playful selection of rotating flavors like lemon lavender and roasted strawberry. The haunting bourbon vanilla flavor and the chocolate are always available. Of the two, the vanilla version best complements the full eggy flavor.
To experience the frozen custard's best quality—its velvety texture—order a simple "Naked Yeti," which is the frozen custard by itself. It's also available in old-fashioned sundae form, topped with soda foundation and ice cream counter standard whipped cream, mellow hot fudge, or a thin caramel sauce, plus fresh fruit or candy. Floats made with root beer or Dr. Pepper are available, too, but I find that the soda drowns the dense, soft texture of the custard.
Traditional Ice Cream and Impressive Flavors: Amy's Ice Creams
Initially, I scoffed at the crowds of tourists on South Congress Avenue scarfing troughs of Mexican Vanilla, this local chain's signature flavor. But I've changed my opinion ever since trying their cajeta ice cream, a caramel flavor made from goat's milk. Less sweet than most dulce de leche ice creams, the smooth richness of this golden-hued dessert is balanced by an unmistakable tangy flavor. It's not always available, so be sure to try it if you spot it. The friendly staff at Amy's make the whole experience a pleasant one.
Killer Affogato: Tèo Gelato
Owner Matthew Lee doesn't hold back in the flavor department at this Rosedale gelato shop, recently named one of the three top gelaterias in North America in the World Gelato Tour. His Poteet strawberry bursts with fruity sweetness, and the woodsy vanilla-rosemary flavor is fascinatingly pungent. Tèo also serves classic Italian flavors like pistachio and bacio, and a variety of seasonal fruit flavors. Their gelati are on the sweeter side, rich and dense with a glossy sheen.
One of their best treats, though, is an affogato made with their superb espresso poured over melting vanilla gelato. The bitter/sweet balance is right on point.
Mexican-Style Ice Cream: Paleteria La Selva
It's worth driving north to this small Round Rock shop just to see the two freezers bursting with over thirty flavors of vibrant paletas. Homemade popsicles are the heart of this ten-year-old business, but owner Javier Rodriguez also stocks a small selection of Mexican-style ice creams in equally blinding colors. Judging by the color alone, you might mistake the rompope flavor for mango. Best described as Mexican eggnog, it's packed with vibrant vanilla and cinnamon flavor, with a subtle banana note in the background. The camote contains shreds of real sweet potato. The best choices, though, are the fragrant coconut ice cream or the arroz. Perfumed with cinnamon, this frozen rice pudding features chewy grains of rice that impart a distinctly nutty flavor.
Ice Cream Sandwiches: Coolhaus
Though you can get frozen-solid Coolhaus ice cream sandwiches in almost every small food shop in Austin now, it's worth it to track down the truck via its website or Twitter feed to construct your own custom combination. You won't be disappointed with smooth salted caramel ice cream sandwiched between two snickerdoodle cookies. The ice cream's delicate saltiness pairs well with the sweet crunch of the cinnamon sugar cookies. It's also texturally satisfying to bite into some vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two chocolatey-soft red velvet cookies drizzled with crunchy white icing.
The only disadvantage is that, because the ice cream must be softly scoopable to make sandwiches to order, it tends to smush out the sides and melt while you eat it. This is not a problem with the expertly constructed pre-made ice cream sandwiches that are thoroughly frozen but still chewy enough to eat.
Vegan Option: Sweet Ritual
This vegan ice cream shop housed within the Hyde Park location of Juiceland keeps getting more impressive. After launching with soft serve, the shop's first attempts at hard packed ice cream were icy, crunchy, and disappointing. But there are no longer any ice crystals, and the coconut milk based ice creams pleasantly coat your tongue in a way that you'd only expect from traditional dairy-based ice creams.
The best strategy at Sweet Ritual is to order a something that pairs well coconut because the flavor of the milk is never camouflaged completely. Order two scoops of the roasted banana flavor smothered in a coconut milk-based salted caramel sauce. The smooth ice cream offers a subtle caramel flavor and shows no sign of ice crystals. Instead, you'll only find soft chunks of real banana and crunchy bits of caramelized sugar distributed throughout.
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