The Best Ice Cream in San Francisco
Everyone has their favorite ice cream shops. Here in San Francisco we have a huge range, from the mundane to the exotic. Here are my top 4 ice cream shops in San Francisco—in no particular order—the kinds of places that serve up ice cream you won't find anywhere else. (See the map at the end for locations and directions)
Humphry Slocombe: really unusual ice cream flavors
Located deep in the Mission District (Harrison @ 24th), Humphry Slocombe serves up the most inventive flavors in San Francisco. In fact, they got a full feature article in the New York Times in 2010. With ice cream and sorbet flavors called hibiscus beet, government cheese (!), and Jesus Juice (red wine and Coke), what's not to love? The shop is actually not very large, and they typically only serve about a dozen flavors at a time, but there's usually something for everyone. Here are the flavors I've tried:
- Secret breakfast: cornflakes and bourbon. Delicious, but won't bowl you over. I think I like the concept more than the actual flavor.
- Salted black licorice: reminds me of the "drop" I used to eat in Holland. Surprising punch to this flavor. If you like black licorice, you'll love this creamy, smooth take on it. (If you hate licorice, this won't make you change your mind - avoid!)
- Peanut butter curry: I liked this delightfully unctuous flavor. It's nutty and subtly pungent at the same time.
- Blue Bottle Vietnamese coffee: Basically a really nice coffee ice cream. Blue Bottle is a San Francisco coffee roaster favored by coffee snobs.
There are tons others that I'd really like to try. They have several beer flavors (Russian Imperial Stout, Guinness gingerbread, Old Hebrew Ale, Butter Beer, etc.) that I'd imagine might be refreshing on a warm day. Maybe it's because warm days are so rare here that I've never tried them.
At any rate, if you have a craving for something unusual, give it a shot!
Open noon-9pm (Mon-Thurs) and noon-10pm (Fri, Sat, Sun).
Bi-Rite Creamy - variations on classics
The flavors available at Bi-Rite Creamery aren't as jaw-droppingly weird as those at Humphry Slocombe, but they're not the kind you'll find in your supermarket freezer case, either. Think California ingredients and flavors (blood orange olive oil, marcona almonds, burnt caramel sauce...).
Located catty corner from Dolores Park, there's a long line here every sunny weekend, with good reason. The ice cream is fresh, flavorful, and there are great sundae options, too. If you can convince a friend to share, the hot fudge brownie sundaes are delicious and a bargain (but they're really too much for one person).
Here are the flavors I've tried:
- Salted caramel: This was one of the first places I saw this ice cream flavor, before the flavor combination kind of exploded and showed up everywhere. It is delectable.
- Balsamic strawberry: The fruity lightness of strawberry, paired with the sour richness of balsamic vinegar. Surprisingly good; don't worry, it won't taste like a salad. (Ask for a taste if you don't believe me)
- Earl grey: Sounds great (I love the tea, and bergamot-flavored anything), but the flavor was a bit too mild for my liking. If you have a very delicate palate, this might be up your alley.
- Honey lavender: My partner's favorite. Perfumey and sweet, these two flavors really do pair wonderfully together.
- Ricanelas: This is cinnamon-flavored ice cream with snickerdoodle cookies. As a cinnamon lover, this is one of my favorite flavors at Bi-Rite.
If you don't want to wait in the (miles-long) line, you can opt for the soft-serve window a bit further down closer to Guerrero. They usually only have two flavors (chocolate or vanilla, plus one more, sometimes salted caramel!) and cookies, as well, that they bake there. They also have an extremely popular (i.e. densely packed) gourmet grocery store on the opposite site of 18th even closer to Guerrero.
Open 11am-10pm (Sun-Thurs) and 11am-11pm (Fri, Sat)
Mitchell's - a long-standing institution
Mitchell's is the least hipster place in my list, and with good reason: it predates the hipster era. I've been going since the late 90s, and it's been around for decades before I found out about the place. Located in the bottom floor of an apartment building (the family owns the apartments above, too, and rent them out - a friend of mine lived there years ago), Mitchell's features dozens of flavors, some seasonal favorites, and a large selection of tropical flavors that you'll need a Filipino friend to translate for you (unless you already know what buko, halo halo, and kalamansi are). Here are just some of the flavors (standard and seasonal) I've tried here, usually with some chocolate dip dripped on top:
- Buko: a bit milder than the other Filipino coconut flavor, macapuno, buko is great if you want creamy over tropical punch.
- Thai iced tea: Bright orange, and with that same delicious flavor you enjoy at Thai restaurants. (This is not on their flavor list anymore, so it's possible they stopped carrying it)
- Mexican chocolate: Chocolate ice cream with cinnamon, similar to the kind you drink in Mexico (except without the spicy kick).
- Ube: More of a novelty flavor, since it's bright purple. Ube is a type of yam from the Philippines. The flavor is so mild that you can miss it entirely.
- Avocado: Similar to ube in that the flavor is surprisingly mild, but the bright green color and bragging rights make it popular. (It used to only be available for takeout in gallon buckets, but recently they started selling it by the cone)
- Peach: Hands down the freshest flavor, but you can only get it in the summer. Really worth getting it then.
The place is popular, so they installed a paper number dispenser near the door. Take a number and peruse your choices until they call you forward.
Smitten Ice Cream - technologically advanced
In a prefab cottage that it shares with similarly fawned over Ritual Coffee, Smitten Kitchen uses a novel approach to producing really creamy ice cream: it freezes it to order using liquid nitrogen. They pour a refrigerated liquid base (basically melted ice cream) into a standing mixer, start it going, and dispense liquid nitrogen. About 2 minutes later, amidst a cloud of mist, your ice cream emerges.
Smitten Ice Cream is not even close to the cheapest option here - it's actually pretty expensive - but for the novelty alone it's worth a try. I've tried their Tcho 60.5% chocolate ice cream, and their vanilla, and, predictably, loved the chocolate one. To the bases, you can add a few interesting toppings, like cacao nibs, almond brittle, or even candied jalapeno peppers (hey, some like their cold with hot). My favorites:
- Fresh strawberry: I had this unadorned, and liked it a lot. Maybe because the ice cream is not as cold as frozen-solid ice cream, the strawberry flavor really popped. A gorgeous red color, too.
- Chocolate with candied ginger: My favorite (of the, um, 3 times I've been here). To be fair, I'm going to like just about anything chocolate- or ginger-flavored, but the intense tastes and textures of this ice cream made the $5+ I had to cough up for the tiny cup considerably less regretful.
Open noon-9pm (Sun-Thurs) and noon-10pm (Fri, Sat)
Inventive ice cream and sorbet flavors, stuff like "secret breakfast" (bourbon and cornflakes), candied ginger, & peanut butter curry.
Always a long line here, for twists on classics like salted caramel, balsamic strawberry, and honey lavender.
Open late (11pm every day!), with tons of flavors, including avocado (yep), lychee, Mexican chocolate, & peach (only in the summer - it is heavenl
This kiosk (shared with Ritual Coffee) custom freezes your ice cream to order with liquid nitrogen. Awesome topping options like candied jalapeno.