No. 39: Sticky Chewy Chocolate Ice Cream at Swensen's
SFoodie's countdown of our 92 favorite things to eat and drink in San Francisco, 2011 edition.
John Birdsall Sticky chewy chocolate ice cream, $2.70 for a 4-ounce cup at Swensen's.
I was a kid growing up down the Peninsula, spending summers with my grandpa at the Bay Meadows racetrack, getting coached in how to bet a trifecta or where to find the three-fingered guy who seemed to know which fillies were running hot that day. Afterwards, he'd take me to Swensen's for ice cream. Together we'd lick cones, closed up in grandpa's caramel-colored Caprice, the one with the dashboard tinted pale amber with nicotine. I liked Rocky Road.
Earle Swensen opened his first ice cream shop on Russian Hill in 1948. By 1964, Swensen began franchising his concept, five years after Richard Campana started working at the Hyde Street original. Swensen passed away in 1996, and Campana bought the shop nearly three years later, though the Swensen's chain had transferred to a company with far deeper pockets. Nowadays it's owned by IFI, a franchising corporation based in Canada, near Toronto. President and CEO Aaron Serruya tells me the Swensen's name has faded in North America, where there are only 30 shops, but worldwide it's thriving, with a total of 410. "In certain markets in Asia we're the McDonald's of the country," Serruya says. "We have a higher average gross in Singapore than any other chain." Go figure.
The Russian Hill original, meanwhile, is one of the few shops still run semi-independently (Richard Campana still owns it), one of only 10 Swensen's worldwide allowed to make its ice cream on site, using Earle Swensen's original recipes. "You're chocolate lovers there in San Francisco," Serruya says, and I imagine him poring over a spreadsheet of raw cone-sale data. "Huh," I say, thinking about that Rocky Road. "I guess we are."
In fact, it's two other chocolate flavors I'm drawn to these days.
Swiss orange chip has a cocoa base, tiny chips with the irregular shapes of playground bark, and a big, old wallop of orange essence. It seems to tint the ice cream a shade like patina'd bronze, and though it's initially thrilling, the orange oil starts to feel hot in your sinuses. Swensen's best flavor? Sticky chewy chocolate, made with both cocoa powder and what must be some particularly viscous chocolate syrup, tarry enough to yield a wonderfully stretchy body to the finished ice cream. It coats your tongue, is neither too sweet nor too bitter, and avoids the high-butterfat ponderousness of modern superpremiums ― the perfect ice cream for the front seat of a Caprice, or the walk down Hyde Street, the crockery-rattle sound of the cable car mechanism in your ears.
Swensen's Ice Cream: 1999 Hyde (at Union), 775-6818.
92: Goat tacos from El Norteño
91: Faux shark's fin soup at Benu
90: Esperpento's alcachofas a la plancha
89: Poco Dolce's olive oil chocolate bar
88: Decantr's chicken-liver mousseline
87: Outerlands' levain bread
86: Fraîche's frozen yogurt
85: Gyro King's spinach pie
84: Tandoori fish from Lahore Karahi
83: Braised oxtail and daikon from Namu
82: Golden Gate Bakery's custard tarts
81: Commonwealth's cured foie gras with umeboshi purée
80: Star Stream's Liège-style waffle
79: Mexican hot chocolate from La Oaxaqueña
78: Meatball sandwich from Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe
77: Cheesecake from Zanze's
76: Chicken pepian at San Miguel
75: Macau iced coffee at Vega/Special Xtra
74: Comstock Saloon's Pisco Punch
73: Hai Ky Mi Gia's duck leg noodle soup
72: Sauerbraten at Walzwerk
71: Boudin noir at Cafe Bastille
70: Blackstrap molasses gingerbread at Lotta's Bakery
69: Plow's crispy potatoes
68: Prospect's Catcher in the Rye
67: Pork banh mi from Little Vietnam Cafe
66: Nakaochi at Ippuku
65: Sidekick's chocolate spritzer
64: Farmhouse Culture's horseradish-leek sauerkraut
63: Destination Baking Co.'s challah
62: Cotogna's roasted carrots
61: Hard Knox Cafe's chicken and waffles
60: The Rebel Within from Tell Tale Preserve Co.
59: The Slanted Door's Whiskey Cocktail
58: Carnitas burrito from Taqueria San Francisco
57: Sakura mochi from Benkyodo
56: Birria at Gallardos
55: BBQ pork skewers at Fil-Am Cuisine
54: JapaCurry's katsu curry
53: Vegan flan at Gracias Madre
52: Cinderella Bakery's pelmeni
51: Locavore's maple andouille sausage
50: Lumpia from Hapa SF
49: Moonlight Brewing's Reality Czeck
48: Filetti pizza at Una Pizza Napoletana
47: Pupusas revueltas at La Santaneca
46: Khoresht ghaymeh at Maykadeh
45: Los Muertos at Gitane
44: Sandwich cookies from Sweet Constructions
43: Nicasio Valley Cheese Company's square
42: Nopalito's quesadilla roja
41: Croissant from Sandbox Bakery
40: Cultured's burdock kasu-zuke pickles