An abundance of ice cream is surely not the worst symptom of late capitalism, and with summer right around the corner, knowing about the one-mile stretch of Union Street where there are now six establishments serving the frosty treat is a matter of great importance. (Can we bring back the term "parlor"? Or does that only allude to seedy massage joints?) With the help of my trusty research assistant/lactose-tolerant husband, Michael, I sampled at least two flavors from each shop: whatever seemed most unusual and, as a highly scientific control, chocolate.
The budget conscious may balk at an $8 cone, but that is the price of a single scoop at Frankie & Jo's (1010 E Union St), located on the Capitol Hill side of Union. (A "mini" is $4 without a cone.) Alas, perhaps that's the cost of serving up plant-based ice creams (with coconut- and cashew-milk bases) and paying rent on the same block as the Renee Erickson empire. The California Cabin promised wood-smoked-vanilla and pine ice cream, its rich vanilla-bean foundation speckled with gluten-free black-pepper cardamom shortbread that was a tad chalky in larger pieces and could have been a little heavier on the spice. I expected sweet mint from the pine, so the tropical-fruit flavors of pineapple and banana came as a surprise. The Chocolate Date made for a dark, luscious, and pudding-like experience. And the Salted Caramel Ash—gray, buttery, tart—contained activated charcoal, the reason unclear since our scooper said it doesn't affect the taste, just the color. But it does offer the health benefit of natural teeth whitening. From Michael: "It's like eating ice cream made from elephant's milk."
If pricey ice cream raises your hackles, Chuck's Hop Shop in the Central District (2001 E Union St)—which deals primarily in craft beer—offers a kiddie scoop of Full Tilt for a mere $1.50. The radioactively-colored flavors are most popular with the children who run amok as their parents imbibe IPAs and saisons. During a previous visit, a little girl smeared Cotton Candy ice cream on my bubble-gum-pink sweater, but I didn't deign to sample it. This time, I went for the Blue Moon flavor, which resembles a blue the shade of Pantone 306C. I asked if it was raspberry-flavored. "Actually, it kinda tastes like Froot Loops," the scooper replied. I thought it would be like those toxic quarter-waters of yore, that came in little barrel-shaped jugs with aluminum tops. But no! It tasted exactly like creamy Froot Loops. And it was, in my opinion, far better than the chocolate mint chip, which was too light on the chocolate. Michael disagreed.
Across the street, Central District Ice Cream Company (2016 E Union St) presented us with too many intriguing options and—crafty geniuses—they change all of them monthly. In April, the Beast Mode Toasted "Marsh-Mellow" featured beautifully caramelized marshmallow bits along with squishier chunks of mini-marshmallows. I could have done without the squishy and gone for more toasted bits instead, but perhaps that would betray the "mellow" promise of the flavor. The magnificent Chocolate Jasmine was the clear winner. Darker than Full Tilt's, it was studded with still-darker chunks of chocolate that had a delectable crunch, while the infusion of jasmine gave off a heady floral perfume. CDICC sells prior months' flavors by the pint; if Chocolate Jasmine is available, take a pint home. They also sell ice-cream sandwiches created with large macarons and pizzelles (traditional Italian waffle cookies). I chose a pizzelle that had an Olive Oil with Balsamic Caramel center, but the olive-oil-dominant flavor lacked any balsamic sharpness or intense caramel. The pizzelle was not so brittle as to fall apart, so the sandwich didn't collapse with a bite. It didn't taste like much, but the texture was nice.
Further down, Feed Co. Burgers (1190 24th Ave) serves milkshakes made from Snoqualmie Ice Cream. The chocolate shake was fairly standard, about as benign as a Wendy's Frosty. The swirl of chocolate syrup at the bottom tasted exactly like what you would expect from it. Its thickness, however, proved satisfying, and better suited for a spoon rather than a straw. Meanwhile, the Blackberry & Blueberry was surprisingly mild. I expected a tart onslaught from the blackberries, but they took a backseat to the extra-creamy texture and wholesome flavor of blueberries, which elicited a feeling of goodwill toward the world. It was almost reminiscent of baby food, save for the berry puree at the cup's bottom, which darkened and sweetened the flavor and added a seedy crunch.
Street Treats (2407 E Union St) is the newest addition to the Ice Cream Mile, a food truck that opened a kitchen and serves from a counter in the same building as Feed Co. With no seating available inside, we ate Street Treats' custom ice-cream sandwiches standing under a nearby overhang to avoid the rain. We squished the ice cream gently to fit our mouths around a complete bite. The cookies—chocolate chip and snickerdoodle—were just the right balance of crispy, chewy, and moist. We paired the snickerdoodle with a very good, if standard, chocolate, and the chocolate chip with toasted coconut, which could have been coconuttier. Here, the ice cream served more as moisture for the cookies rather than the cookie being a vessel for the ice cream.
One cannot discuss ice cream in Seattle without bringing up Molly Moon's. Full disclosure: Michael and I developed a dangerous addiction to the salted caramel back in the last dregs of the Great Recession. We ate it more often than I care to admit, until we realized we were gaining weight and straining our budget. Thus, out of a profound sense of duty, we trudged up to the Madrona location (1408 34th Ave), which shares space with a laundromat but thankfully doesn't smell of detergent or dirty underwear. The seasonal flavor, Sour Cream Rhubarb Crisp, tasted like lemony cheesecake with goopy swirls of not-too-tart jam. Oat and buckwheat crumble gave it a mild crunch, but I was in it for the jam. The Melted Chocolate was dark and unctuous, how chocolate ice cream should be.
Overall, Central District Ice Cream Company struck me as the most creative of the bunch, sticking the landing with its swoon-worthy Chocolate Jasmine. Michael had a more magnanimous view: "My favorite ice cream place is whichever one I'm sitting in."