Crossed Off the Bucket List: San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Creamery

Many obsessive ice-cream hobbyists will tell you that they have a “bucket list,” or list of ice cream shops they’d like to visit during their lifetime. I don’t exactly have a bucket list (I want to try them all!), but there are some iconic ice cream shops that I dream of visiting. These include Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream’s original location in Columbus, Ohio, Salt & Straw in Portland, Oregon, the Penn State Creamery (where you can take a 7 day ice-cream science course), and a handful of others. Up until last month, Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco was high on that list.

Bi-Rite Creamery started out as a local neighborhood favorite in San Francisco’s Mission District, but it has gained national notoriety in recent years. Heck, one of the owners has even appeared on the Martha Stewart Show! The Creamery opened in 2006 as part of the Bi-Rite Market, a historic family-owned business across the street, and quickly took off. Co-owners Kris Hoogerhyde and Anne Walker share a commitment to locally grown and organic ingredients, and their ice creams are made by hand in small batches. They were two of the pioneers of the “locally sourced” movement that’s so popular among the trendy ice cream shops today

I finally got my chance to visit Bi-Rite Creamy during a recent work trip to San Francisco. I arrived a day early so I could grab dinner with a college roommate who lives in the Bay Area. Because of the time difference, I arrived in San Francisco with plenty of time to kill before dinner. It was a abnormally warm, summery day in San Francisco and ice cream sounded like a great way to cool off.

The Mission District was quick BART ride from my hotel on Union Square. The neighborhood was particularly busy this Sunday afternoon, and the people watching entertained me on the short walk to Bi-Rite Creamery. I knew that I was getting close when I passed the Bi-Rite Market, which looked smaller than I’d anticipated but so packed with shoppers that I didn’t dare venture inside.

I spotted the waiting line before I saw the Bi-Rite Creamery itself. For 3:30pm on a winter afternoon, this line was seriously impressive. Okay, it was 80 degrees out, but still! line at bi-riteLuckily, the line moved fairly quickly and I soon found myself inside. IMG_7139On any given day, there are well over a dozen flavors available at Bi-Rite. Some are staples of the menu, like Vanilla and Chocolate but also their famous Salted Caramel, Honey Lavender, and Balsamic Strawberry flavors. Whereas the Orange Cardamom, Earl Grey, and Maple Walnut were late-winter specials.

IMG_7141I had a difficult time picking flavors; the Roasted Banana with fudge swirl was very tempting. And if I didn’t have to avoid gluten, I would have definitely tried the infamous Ricanelas (cinnamon ice cream with snickerdoodle cookie pieces). In the end, I decided on the seasonal Crème Brûlée and the vegan Chocolate Coconut ice cream (made with local TCHO chocolate). Because so many people in my life are lactose-intolerant or vegan, I pay attention to non-dairy options. This one looked too good to pass up.

IMG_7140My mouth dropped when I saw gluten-free cones available. And they were FREE of charge! Major points for Bi-Rite!

My “single” cone came to $4.00, which isn’t cheap. But I’ve paid more for similar-sized cones of regular mass-produced ice cream, so I didn’t think the price was unreasonable.IMG_7144

The verdict? I have to admit that Bi-Rite Creamery is worth the hype! I was already impressed with the variety of flavors and the accommodations for special diets. But it was the ice cream itself that truly had me “wowed.” The Crème Brûlée was amazing. It has everything I love about the traditional dessert: a thick custard base and plenty of shards of blow-torched caramelized sugar. Like the real thing, this ice cream is seriously rich. It’s not something I could eat every day, but it was incredibly flavorful and fun to eat. I later learned that this flavor was created by Chase Cho, who won a recipe competition hosted by Bi-Rite. And I can see why this one! The vegan Chocolate Coconut also exceeded any expectations I had. While many coconut milk-based ice creams are heavy and dense, this one was light and velvety. The chocolate flavor was definitely predominant, with slight coconut undertones. I’d definitely recommend this to anybody who loves ice cream but avoids dairy.

All in all, Bi-Rite Creamery was everything I had hoped for. An innovative company with a serious commitment to fresh local ingredients and unique (yet authentic) flavors. I’m already looking out for an opportunity to return.

The Stats:
Bi-Rite Creamery
3692 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
http://biritecreamery.com/

 

La Michoacana brings Mexican flavors to Sonoma County

Happy Holidays! I hope everyone is relaxing and enjoying time with loved ones.

Before heading to Massachusetts for Christmas, I had to fly out to the West Coast to present at a conference in Sonoma, California. While snow in Washington, DC threatened to cancel my trip, I ended up having an easy time getting myself to the Sonoma County Airport. This quaint single-gate airport is named after cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, who created the comic strip Peanuts. I got a kick out of all the Snoopy paraphernalia in the teeny-tiny airport.

Sonoma is nestled in the heart of California’s wine country. Wineries in Sonoma County tend to be a bit smaller and are mostly family-owned, and thus Sonoma is a bit less crowded and commercialized than neighboring Napa Valley. Sadly, I didn’t have time to visit any wineries during my 48 hours in Sonoma. But the beautiful vineyards and dry, rolling hills left me breathless, and I’ve already asked K to travel to Sonoma together someday.

On my one full day in Sonoma, I did manage to make time for ice cream. Priorities, people! Sitting in my rental car after the conference, a quick iPhone search resulted in a couple choices. But when I read that the New York Times recommended an ice-cream shop called “La Michoacana” in its 36 Hours in Sonoma article, my decision was made. K and I regularly turn to the “36 Hours” series for restaurant and sightseeing tips before traveling to new cities.

Even in the dark evening, it was easy to spot La Michoacana along the busy Highway 12 in Sonoma; the brightly-lit and colorful storefront stands out in an otherwise grey strip of stores. I had read that the owner, Teresita Carr, grew up in Tocumba, Mexico, where the La Michoacana chain was founded. Located in western Mexico, Tocumba is a small town with a big reputation: about 90% of families living in Tocumba are involved in the ice-cream industry (according to this USA Today article).

From what I’ve read, La Michoacana is fairly ubiquitous in Mexico; rather than an official brand, the name is applied to any establishment that carries traditional Tocumba ice cream (referred to as “Michocán-style”, after the state in which Tocumba is located) and traditional Mexican paletas. Ice cream from Tocumba is known for its simple, all-natural ingredients and focus on inventive flavors. Paletas are like better versions of American popsicles — all-natural frozen pops made out of fresh juice, chunks of fruit, and (sometimes) a bit of real cream.

Like a typical shop in Mexico, Sonoma’s La Michoacana offers an incredible variety of flavors. I could’ve easily spent an hour reading through the entire menu of ice cream, sorbet, paleta, and agua fresca flavors and tasting different samples. But since I had to get back to work, I tried to make a quick selection. Many of the fruit flavors sounded delicious (particularly the Coconut Pineapple and Banana Nut ice cream and Guava sorbet), and so did the traditional Americanized flavors like Strawberry Cheesecake, Cookies and Cream, and Rum Raisin. I went with my gut and ordered a two-scoop cup of Chongo (translated as “Custard”) and Peanut Butter, which cost me $4.

Bottom scoop: Peanut Butter
Top scoop: Chongo, or “Custard”

The verdict? Each batch of La Michoacana ice cream is handmade in the back room, and both flavors were fresh and creamy – not a hint of icy freezer burn or artificial flavoring. I wasn’t sure what Chongo would taste like, but I found it very pleasant. It was smooth and creamy, with a rich egg-y flavor reminiscent of Spanish flan or Australian custard. The smoothness of the Chongo offset the crunchiness of the Peanut Butter ice cream, which was very different than the traditional American peanut-butter ice cream. La Michoacana’s version was a bit less sweet, allowing the true peanut taste to shine through. The ice cream was as chock-full of peanut bits as my favorite “super-chunk” peanut butter (maybe even more?), which made for a very satisfying scoop. Think of all that protein! I thoroughly enjoyed both scoops; neither flavor was so unique that it knocked my socks off, but this was excellent ice cream. La Michoacana is on to something, and I hope Mexican ice cream continues to grow in the United States.

The Stats:
La Michoacana
18495 Highway 12
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-1773
https://www.facebook.com/pages/La-Michoacana/131064026931857