It’s true that the issue of ice cream doesn’t seem like a profound one. No one, as far as I know, has been injured or killed by bad ice cream this year in San Diego. No one has suffered impoverishment because of the rising price of ice cream. And no one — although I’m not on solid ground here — has been known to go through serious psychological trouble because of the ice cream issue. But because it, like movies, is one of the cheap escapes we look for ever more in times like these, and because there are definite differences in ice cream available in town, its seems prudent to me to deal with it here and now.
I have these friends in Point Loma who are real ice cream nuts and who for years have fed me with countless ice cream stories. They insist that the best ice cream in the whole world is an ice cream from Chicago called Vala’s that sells for $1.29 a pint. The closest place you can get it is at the Spirits of St. Germaine Liquor in Encinitas. Vala’s has lots of exotic flavors — rippled ones with rum and burgundy — and each container tells on the bottom who the individual packer was ('“packed by Ruth”). Vala’s however, really isn’t the most expensive around; Jurgensen’s sells McConnell’s ice cream for $1.79 a pint.
Now, without even getting into the possible stickier issues of soft ice cream, sherbet, or popsicles, one could go on and on talking about the different preservatives and the cholesterol incumbent in the ice cream experience.
But to keep things manageable, I’ll have to assume that you are not an unflinching health food nut, and limit the discussion to a brief description of different outlets that exist in San Diego:
- Undoubtedly the leader in number of stores, volume of sales, and — its detractors say — willingness to use preservatives and artificial flavorings, Baskin Robbins has expanded from its original 31 flavors to over 500 flavors. Although the Baskin Robbins outlets keep 12 or 15 permanent flavors (chocolate, vanilla, strawberry), every other month a new 20 or so flavors appear. Believe it or not, the most popular flavors at the Baskin Robbins I visited (on West Point Loma Blvd.) are Chocolate Mint and Jamocha Almond Fudge. But Paulines and Cream has become such a popular flavor, the West Point Loma store owner claims, that Baskin Robbins has enshrined it as a permanent flavor nation-wide. In case your tastes run to the really kinky, you should know that the rotating flavors this summer include Pink Bubblegum and Banana Marshmellow.
Baskin Robbins prices seem to be the same as nearly everyone else’s prices — 25 cents for a single scoop, 45 cents for a double, and 65 cents for a triple. The hand-packed ice cream goes for 90 cents a pint, $1.70 a quart, and $3.30 for a 3-pound half gallon.
I have heard complaints that the Baskin Robbins factory in Burbank uses preservatives, artificial coloring, and only 8 per cent cream. These claims aren't refuted by Baskin Robbins people, but they state that they are not at all alone, especially in the use of preservatives and artificial coloring. I have also heard rumors that certain Baskin Robbins — the one in La Jolla in particular - uses a hollow scoop technique, but this is pretty much up to the individual franchise holder.
There are over 14 such franchises in the San Diego area. Though the businesses themselves sell for $50-100,000, the Baskin Robbins octopus has spread itself even onto the Naval Air Station at Miramar and the Naval Training Center.
- Niederfrank’s, a locally owned chain, is somewhat of an octopus these days, but “Papa” Niederfrank would have you believe it’s the same old “Iowa Farm Ice Cream” he’s been serving from his National City store since 1948. Since then, Niederfrank has gone into partnership with Dave Allen, owner of the Ice Cream Factory at the Balboa Plaza shopping center in Clairemont, and there are now seven outlets in San Diego, from Encinitas to East San Diego to National City.
Niederfrank’s people are extremely outspoken about the difference between their ice cream and other ice cream. They have a total of 56 flavors available — all natural flavors, the Niederfrank’s people claim — made with 14 per cent cream, and with the nuts and fruits mixed in naturally, not “shot in after the ice cream is made like the others do it.”
The prices at Niederfranks are about the same as Baskin Robbins', except that the Niederfranks honey flavors are slightly higher than their regular flavors (30 cents for a single scoop, 55 cents for a double, 80 cents for a triple).
One disadvantage of at least the Clairemont store is that it’s hidden in a shopping center behind a shopping center (the Balboa Plaza is behind the FcdMart center on Genesee).
- Farrell’s is a sort of suburban parlor whose most famous feature is the free-sundae-and-hulabaloo birthday party. All one has to do is tell the waiter that it is one of your party’s birthday and they will bring a free sundae to your table, sirens ringing and bells clanging (Farrell’s runs in tight competition with Bully’s La Jolla and the Old Spaghetti Factory downtown for being the noisiest place in town). This same Point Loma ice cream nut couple I know once spent an entire birthday hopping from one Farrell's parlor to another getting free sundaes; they told me that since no one has yet checked their I.D., they’ve been thinking of just trying the birthday routine whenever they feel up to it.
Farrell’s does not serve cones, and even their single scoop servings go for a whopping 55 cents. But the handpacked ice cream is not bad at 70 cents a pint.
- Father Nature’s new location in the Newport Plaza in Ocean Beach is a far cry from their more modest shop near Cable and Voltaire. They seem to have evolved into a friendly, yet clean and businesslike place, and set back a little from the street scene on Newport, they seem to have shed some of the “O.B. is All Right" image. Father Nature’s used to carry Niederfrank’s, until Niederfrank’s found out that Father Nature’s had plans to manufacture its own ice cream at a plant in Sorrento Valley.
Since about a year ago, then. Father Nature's has been carrying ice cream from the Ice Creamery in Fullerton until they get the Sorrento plant in operation. One of the telling characteristics of Father Nature’s is that they attempt to sell some flavors without artificial coloring — pistacchio and mint chip that are both white. They also sell smoothies flavored by vege-juice - guava, papaya, bosenberry, raspberry — and sweetened by apple juice, for 95 cents each. And they’ve been trying to switch their other ice cream flavors to natural colors, not with much luck. “People just won’t buy strawberry unless it's pink.”
- Swenson’s, a San Francisco-based chain, brags just as much about the size of its scoops as do Niederfrank’s and Father Nature’s about their naturalness. Swenson’s, which already had an El Cajon branch, opened a store on the corner of Girard and Pearl about six months ago, and is in hot and heavy competition with the Baskin Robbins at the other side of Pearl. “Meet the Heavyweights” claims the sign as you walk in the door, only to stand behind a line of customers holding numbers. Swenson's says that their single scoops, which cost 35 cents, weigh a full quarter pound: their double scoops - a half pound - are 65 cents. The implication is clear –that you get a lot more tor your money than at Baskin Robbins. There are some 40 flavors available, including Cappuchino and Swiss Orange Chip, but the interesting thing about Swenson’s are the San Franciscan sundaes — the “Coit Tower,’’the “Black Bart.” the “Cable Carfaits,” and the offering of both Sarsaparilla and Phosphates for 35 cents.
- Oink’s Ice Cream, next to Licorice Pizza in Pacific Beach, seems to have taken the “make-your-own-sundae” idea from Zip’s, a soft ice cream place, applied it to both hard and soft ice cream, and tied it in well with every glutton’s identification with a pig(“l know I’m a pig and I love it!”). To encourage this empathy with pigs, there are human-like cartoons of bright pink pigs with pendulous stomachs and bright red tongues hanging out of their mouths painted on the walls. The bright white walls, ceilings, and furniture make me feel a little uncomfortable, like I’m on some modern movie director’s set, but these pig cartoons really arc pretty amazing. According to the Oink’s people, they use Carnation ice cream, which, at 187r cream, has to be the richest I’ve run across. They admit that their scoops are somewhere between Baskin Robbins and Swenson’s in size and that they do use preservatives
The scoops are priced the same as Baskin Robbins, Niederfrank’s, and Father Nature’s, but the “make-your-own” sundaes with hard ice cream run 79 cents for two scoops and your choice of 10-20 different toppings..
- Martha's Creamery moved a few months ago from Sunset Cliffs to Voltaire where the offices of the Navy Dispatch used to be. Martha’s is the only ice cream place I know that still has a sleazy (?), funky (?) atmosphere that I think is just great. The owner seems to have plenty of time to talk about things with any customer (a lot different from Swenson’s and most Baskin Robbins). The main problem I’ve had is that I've come several times when you’d expect an ice cream store to be open, and they haven't been. I always call first now.