By Frank Sabatini Jr.
So what if it wasn’t “ice cream weather” when I took my maiden plunge into Salt & Straw, the hyped ice cream maker out of Portland, Oregon, that debuted here in December.
On this nippy and breezy 60-degree afternoon, the line snaked out the door and left me standing on the sidewalk with other thin-blooded San Diegans eager to blanket our tongues in cold, creamy sweetness.
I’m told that in Portland, patrons often queue up outside of Salt & Straw’s ice cream parlors under more inclement climate conditions.
And now I know why.
Chalk it up to the ice cream’s high butterfat content, which supposedly ranks at 17 percent, opposed to the standard 10 percent in most other brands. The second draw is the unconventional flavors. Some of them are downright freaky, such as the peanut butter stout folding in pieces of pork rinds (chicharron) that are dipped in dark chocolate.
As a February-only flavor, the “bar au chocolat’s poire belle Helene” combines chocolate and cream with poached pears. Now there’s a fruit I don’t ever recall seeing blended into ice cream anywhere — not even at Hammond’s, which will give Salt & Straw some serious competition with its three locations (Point Loma, Pacific Beach and North Park) and ice creams that are as sinfully rich in butterfat.
In my two visits to Salt & Straw, chummy staffers greeted me and other customers as we neared the order counter, offering taste samples from a list of signature and seasonal flavors scribbled onto chalkboards.
Dispensed in small, metal spoons, you can seemingly taste as many as you like without anybody looking down their noses at you. It’s actually vital to the decision process.
The ice creams are sold in scoops, with or without a small sugar cone or a sizable drool-worthy waffle cone made in-house.
Numerous samples led me to a couple of determined purchases. My hands-down favorite was the “freckled woodblock chocolate,” a silly sounding name given to a recipe involving roasted cocoa beans from Portland’s Woodblock Chocolate and sea salt from the Oregon coast.
A single scoop I ordered (without a cone) contained thousands of near-invisible flecks of the chocolate and salt, resulting in a dangerously addicting ice cream I’m certain most of us have never encountered. Every lick yielded a flavor rush that was both powerful and soothing at the same time.
I can’t say the same for the roasted strawberry and toasted white chocolate I sampled. Though hospitably creamy, I struggled to taste the fruit and wondered what the heck toasted white chocolate is supposed to taste like.
My other samples included a respectable vegan creation called “mint chip whoopie pie,” which was on its way out with several other vegan selections available throughout January. If it returns — perhaps in March after the company’s online “vote back your favorite series” concludes — I’d be willing to cuddle up with a pint of it at home for further evaluation.
I continued on with chocolate gooey brownie (ordinary), honey-lavender (too subtle) and another vegan flavor called candied mango (overly sweet) before happily settling for a scoop of the said peanut butter stout on a waffle cone. Good stuff, although the avocado with Oaxacan chocolate fudge was a near contender, mainly because the fudge presented a fine depth of flavor. The avocado not so much.
Part of Salt & Straw’s business model is to source various ingredients from local purveyors when creating flavors specific to each location.
The stout ice cream, for example, is made with Belching Beaver Brewery’s peanut butter milk stout, which is mixed with cream and steeped in the same malts the beer is brewed. I’m not sure where the chocolate-covered pork rinds originate, but they lend a mysterious, savory flavor to the profile.
Starting Feb. 2 and continuing through March 1, is Salt & Straw’s “chocolatiers” series, which will source from five California-based chocolate makers, including Chuao from Encinitas. They were selected by head ice cream maker Tyler Malek, who co-founded Salt & Straw in 2011 with his cousin, Kim Malek.
Look for flavors that include tri-colored “chocolate paint,” raspberry rose, hazelnut praline, the aforementioned chocolate-pear, and more.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.