There are many “Best Ice Cream Shops in America” lists out there, but there’s only a couple shops that you’ll see time and time again. One of these is Salt & Straw in Portland, Oregon. Run by two cousins, Kim & Tyler Malek, Salt & Straw started as a tiny food cart operation. Today, it’s a massively-popular chain (with shops in Portland and Los Angeles) and is a towering figure on the national ice-cream scene. Salt & Straw was one of the first shops in the country to churn out totally wacky and unconventional ice-cream flavors using ingredients like black pepper and blue cheese. But it’s the high quality ice cream & attention to local ingredients that continues to earn Salt & Straw accolades from publications like The New York Times, Saveur, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and even The Oprah Magazine!
Despite spending a lot of time in Washington State, I don’t seem to get down to Portland often enough. According to this blog, the last time I was here was 2012! While I knew of Salt & Straw back then, I failed to get myself to the shop during that short work trip. I did manage to sample the ice cream at Cool Moon, however, which I liked but didn’t love.
I finally had a chance to redeem myself last month, when I was in Portland to celebrate my college roommate’s wedding. It was a very busy weekend, full of wedding festivities and catching up with friends from college, so I had to make a point of getting to Salt & Straw…. it wouldn’t happen organically! Luckily, I was even able to round up a few friends to join me (thanks, Becca, Juan & Bryan!) on my Friday afternoon visit to the SE Division shop in Southeast Portland.
Having heard of hour-long waits, I was shocked to see no line outside of the shop! It was my lucky day. After a quick photo by the famous sign, our party of four headed inside. Salt & Straw’s SE Division shop is beautiful; it looks like a hipster’s take on a classic 1950s ice cream parlor. The interior is predominantly wood, but with bright accents of cherry red and chrome. Wafts of freshly-made waffle cones only adds to the atmosphere.
Salt & Straw has developed hundreds of flavors, but their shops carry fewer than 20 flavors at any given time. About a dozen are “Classic Flavors” and are always available, and the remaining slots are dedicated to seasonal creations. Popular mainstays include Honey Lavender, Chocolate Gooey Brownie, Cinnamon Snickerdoodle, Arbequina Olive Oil, and Freckled Woodblock Chocolate. Today, the limited-edition “Late Summer Harvest Series” flavors sounded amazing: Sauvie Island Grapes PB&J, White Toast & Apple Butter, Sour Cream Fig Pie, Oregon Honeyed Rocky Road, and Bone Marrow & Smoked Cherries.
But the big question: What to order? The lovely and knowledgeable Ally patiently answered my questions and gave me a sample of the Freckled Woodblock Chocolate (her personal fave). I eventually settled on a double-scoop cup of two seasonal favors: the Bone Marrow & Smoked Cherries and Sauvie Island Grapes PB&J. One crazy flavor, one safe bet. When hearing about the blog, Ally shared some inside info: the bone marrow is from cows and is slow roasted, clarified, and then blended with sugar and cream for the base (i.e. no weird clumps of bone marrow). And the PB&J involves two forms of peanut butter (liquid and cereal) and the jam is homemade using local grapes.
The verdict? Salt & Straw lives up to the hype. My friends and I were floored by the deliciousness of Salt & Straw’s ice cream, our eyes bulging in happy surprise as we took our first bites. This is ice cream made by people who deeply understand the science of ice cream. The ice cream was the ideal eating temperate, was rich but not too dense, and every mix-in retained its original state (not soggy but also not frozen solid). My flavors were sweet but not so sweet as to overwhelm the more subtle notes. I promise: the Bone Marrow & Smoked Cherries is good! Bone marrow may be a culinary trend, but I don’t go out of my way to eat it. The bone marrow just adds a bit of salt and umami flavor to the smooth ice cream, and the soft chunks of smoked Oregon Dark Sweet cherries add texture and familiarity. My other scoop – the Sauvie Island Grapes PB&J – was a dream; intense peanut-buttery flavor in light ice cream form. The homemade grape jam swirl brought me right back to childhood. The crunchy PB cereal bits were few and far between. These two scoops paired well with one another!
As I mentioned, my friends were equally as pleased with their order. Bryan’s Salted Stumptown Cold Brew Shake looked so creamy and inviting that I had to steal a couple sips. Oh-my-goodness was it yummy. I’m not one for shakes, but I would make an exception for this one. Smooth Stumptown cold brew blended with Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbon ice cream.
All in all, Salt & Straw totally lived up to my sky-high expectations. My only regret was not coming sooner!
Salt & Straw – SE Division
3345 SE Division Street
Portland, ME 92702
(multiple locations in Portland & Los Angeles)