There is an ice cream problem in Ballard. Okay, it's not a "problem," per se, but now that Li'l Woody's has opened a second location on Market Street with a Molly Moon's ice cream counter inside, there are three places to get gourmet ice cream within one Ballard block—THREE! Just a few storefronts down from Li'l Woody's sits Cupcake Royale, which has been serving a cupcake-inspired ice cream selection for more than a year now (red velvet cake ice cream with cream cheese chunks!), and across the street and one block down Leary is Full Tilt Ice Cream, which carries flavors like Blue Moon ("Tastes like Smurf barf," as its little sign says) and cantaloupe black pepper (a seasonal selection that sounds amazing; I really regret not trying it while I was there).

Now that the sun is out and three different shops are begging for you to cool off at their ice cream counter, it's time to find the winner, once and for all, in this crazy triangle of frozen confections. They all offer unique flavors, milkshakes, sundaes, and to-go pints, and sure, none of them are bad, but which ice cream is the best? To answer this burning question, I gathered up three pints from each shop–chocolate, vanilla, and salted caramel—took them home, hid which brand was which, and fed each and every one to a brave, sweet-toothed panel. I also brought the leftovers into work because, man, nine pints of ice cream is really a lot of ice cream.


Test #1: Vanilla

Full Tilt's French Vanilla: "This tastes more like whipped cream than vanilla ice cream—at least compared to the other two." "It doesn't even really smell like vanilla—it just smells like milk." "Yeah, it's milk-flavored ice cream."

Cupcake Royale's Triple Vanilla: "This is my favorite—it's really rich." "It tastes almost like caramel!" "It smells really good, too."

Molly Moon's Vanilla Bean: "This is the standout for me—I can really tastes the vanilla seeds." "It's more refreshing and crisp than the other one, but [Cupcake Royale's] tastes a little more special."

The winner: Cupcake Royale. It's both clean and decadent, boasting a lot of vanilla flavor without being overwhelming or tasting artificial to the palate.

Test #2: Salted Caramel

Full Tilt's Salted Caramel: "This one is my favorite—it tastes just like a Werther's Original." "I think it tastes kind of like Crunchberries!" "Crunchberries? I don't taste Crunchberries." "This one is the most refreshing—the others are too salty."

Cupcake Royale's Burnt Caramel and Sea Salt: "I like this one because it's not as sweet as the others." "I think it tastes a little burnt..." "Caramel should taste a little burnt. That's all it is, burnt sugar and cream. I like that." "I don't."

Molly Moon's Salted Caramel: "Whoa, this is a kick in the face!" "Yeah, I don't think I want to finish this." "I don't like it at all. It tastes like a stick of butter with salt on it." "The first bite is great, but I don't want to eat any more."

The winner: Full Tilt. They've masterfully crafted a creamy salted caramel ice cream that isn't too salty. If you'd prefer something less sweet, though, Cupcake Royale's Burnt Caramel was a close runner-up (so long as you don't mind your caramel tasting slightly burnt).

Test #3: Chocolate

Full Tilt's Chocolate: "This one tastes like a chocolate Jell-O Pudding Pop!" (Cue a few minutes of Bill Cosby impersonations.) "It has a good mouthfeel." "I hate that word." "How about you make me a mouthfeel sundae?"

Cupcake Royale's Malted Milk Chocolate: "I do not like this one—it's like eating Whoppers." "It's malted, it's supposed to be like that. I love it!" "I don't want it to be malted—it reminds me of Carnation Instant Breakfasts." "My mom drinks those." "So does mine!"

Molly Moon's Melted Chocolate: "This is more bittersweet than the other two, but the aftertaste is weird." "I like this one because it's darker than the others, but I have to say, I like chocolate ice cream very much and none of these really impress me that much." "That's what I was going to say."

The winner: A tie between Full Tilt and Molly Moon's, with one (very adamant) renegade nomination for Snoqualmie Ice Cream's Mukilteo Mudd. And, for the record, if you don't like malt (weirdo), Cupcake Royale also carries a malt-free dark chocolate ice cream that's quite good.

As you can see, there was no landslide winner here. Full Tilt is your most reliable choice, holding the lead with one and a half (out of three) points. Cupcake Royale is close behind with a full point (and it's worth noting that they were the favorite in all categories for one tester). While Molly Moon's doesn't have the best vanilla, chocolate, or salted caramel in town, I'm a sucker for their balsamic strawberry. Each place has its weaknesses; each has its merits—for example, besides really good ice cream, Full Tilt has pinball, and Cupcake Royale makes cupcake sundaes. You might just have to do a taste test of your own. recommended