Happy Summer, New Yorkers! We’re officially post-solstice and now that we’ve gotten all that freedom out of our systems, it’s time to honor the most important summer holiday: National Ice Cream Month. And what better way to celebrate than by yet again doing a bunch of research no one asked for?
Inspired by FiveThirtyEight’s Ultimate Burrito Bracket, I set out to find the best ice cream in Brooklyn. This led to many weeks of existential contemplation: what makes something the “best” ice cream. Is it the most original flavor? The creamiest? The most refreshing on a hot summer day? How much it reminds you of childhood summers? Furthermore, is it fair to compare, say, OddFellows’ Miso Cherry with a classic Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough? How does the shop affect the experience? And isn’t that what ice cream is: an experience? It’s summer and comfort and cool down and love. (Well, as long as you aren’t actually working at one of these shops, serving the sweaty, sun-addled masses.)
In the end, we actually ended up determining the best ice cream shop, rather than flavor, in Brooklyn.
Is our research scientific? No. Is it delicious? What, do you think we ate 30 pints of ice for the sake of selfless journalism? But we put together a fair fight, and in all honesty, you’d be well served by any of these ice creams.
A team of four judges rated 12 ice cream shops in Brooklyn. In an effort to create the closest apples to apples (strawberry to strawberry?) comparison we rated each shop on two flavors – vanilla, and their most popular flavor (interestingly, almost half of the “Populars” were a variation on salted caramel). Twelve ice cream shops, 24 flavors, one champion (and four stomachaches).
Each flavor was rated on a scale of 1-10, taking into account creaminess, density, depth of flavor, childhood nostalgia, refreshment and good ol’ personal preference. The shops were seeded randomly into a four-quadrant bracket and we spent one long night tasting through all of them and averaging the numbers for an overall score.
It’s important to note that we’re just going for flavor here. There are a number of delicious sundaes, shakes, toppings and ice cream sandwiches in Kings County, at adorable shops and quaint stands. For our purposes, we’re simply looking for one unadulterated scoop, without the distractions.
We’re also only looking at Brooklyn ice cream. That means that unfortunately the delicious Ice & Vice, Morgenstern’s and Chinatown Ice Cream Factory are out of bounds, though OddFellows, Ample Hills and Davey’s count since they have locations in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. I wanted to evaluate new, artisanal startups as well as neighborhood standards. I wondered if you have to pay more than $5 to get a good scoop of ice cream (hint: you don’t.)
And, in honor of Brokelyn’s vegan editors (and anyone else who doesn’t eat dairy), we also rated vegan ice cream and sorbets as a sidebar competition, not included in the overall bracket. Check back here next Tuesday to see how they ranked.
Katy Hershberger (me) worked for two years at Ben & Jerry’s in the food court of a mall, and has worn the cow costume to prove it.
Eric Silver is super opinionated about everything, so ice cream shouldn’t be out of bounds.
Hope Morawa worked for four years at a Michigan ice cream shop and is very anti-Sugar Free Moose Tracks.
Katy Hartnett is a Soft Serve Enthusiast and Vegan Ice Cream Skeptic.
Brooklyn Bell’s the Local
843 Classon Ave, Crown Heights
Popular flavor: Black Lava Caramel
Brooklyn Bell is “a purveyor of strictly craft foods” which means ice cream in a number of New York stores, and additional treats in their scoop shop. I’ve only tried their ice cream, but I’d happily eat pretty much anything they make.
Hershberger: This black lava caramel is really nice. It’s so dark and complex it’s almost burnt.
Harnett: Like the top of a crème brulee.
Taste the Tropics
1839 Nostrand Ave, Flatbush
Popular Flavor: Grapenut
A shop and wholesaler specializing in Tropical flavors that has been in the neighborhood for 42 years.
Morawa: Like the cereal, Grape Nuts?
Hershberger: This might actually be like the cereal. It’s not a nut nut, it’s a grain.
175 Kent Ave., Williamsburg
75 East 4th St., East Village
Popular Flavor: Buttermilk Honey Blueberry
Oddfellows changes their flavors every day, and features a combination of standards and “OddFlavors” like Caramelized Onion.
My review of their fantastic Buttermilk Honey Blueberry is that I could eat a lot more of it. And what higher praise is there for ice cream, really?
Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory
Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn Heights
97 Commercial St, Greenpoint
Popular Flavor: Butter Pecan
A favorite of locals and tourists alike, Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory serves beloved classic flavors. Peaches & Cream is about as weird as they get.
Silver: I don’t think I’ve ever had Butter Pecan before, or maybe I’ve had it once, but it’s really good. It’s really good.
186 Underhill Ave, Prospect Heights
220 36th St. ground floor, Industry City
Popular Flavor: Sea Salt Caramel
Blue Marble sells pints in grocery stores and restaurants around the city. Their Prospect Heights location serves breakfast fare like oatmeal (though tbh I’ve always thought ice cream is appropriate for breakfast).
Silver: Oh my God. [mouth full] Oh my God, it’s so good.
5918 5th Ave, Sunset Park
Popular Flavor: Red Bean
A small shop with a rotating menu, specializing in Asian flavors. They almost chose Sesame as their Popular, which we’d still love to try.
Uncle Louie G
Popular Flavor: Cookies and Cream
An old-school classic, with a location on almost every corner in Brooklyn (and a couple around the country, too).
Hartnett: The cookies and cream from Louie G’s is really really good, it’s just not anything unexpected. It’s nothing special, but it’s delicious.
Hershberger: Sometimes do you just want the thing?
Silver: You want the thing that delivers what it says it’s going to.
Hartnett: I also feel like if I were going to Louie G’s, I wouldn’t want something that’s, like, going to have a fusion and was made two minutes ago by an artisan. It’s like, “I’d like Cookies and Cream.”
Silver: Right, you want the thing that they can deliver.
137 First Ave., East Village
201 Bedford Ave., Williamsburg
Popular Flavor: Speculoos Chocolate Chip
This shop looks fun, but they’re serious about ice cream, with locally-sourced cream and seasonal farmers market ingredients. (They’re also fun.) Davey’s collaborates with local businesses to create limited edition flavors, which is a job I’d like to volunteer for.
Harnett: The Speculoos is heavy – better for a cup than a cone.
Popular Flavor: Honeycomb
Van Leeuwen is like Mr. Softee’s fancy uncle. You’ve seen their ubiquitous ice cream trucks, you’ve drunk their coffee, now we rate their flavors once and for all.
Hartnett: Van Leeuwen across the board is super sweet. Their vanilla is like Funfetti or Cake Batter.
The Ice Cream House
1725 Avenue M, Flatbush
2 Church Ave., Borough Park
873 Bedford Ave., Bed-Stuy
Popular Flavor: Dulce de Leche
A kosher ice cream shop with a large selection of regular and non-dairy flavors. Before we started tasting, Morawa gushed, “I’ve had the The Ice Cream House before! It’s like the best ice cream I’ve ever had.”
Full disclosure: on the day I got the ice cream, The Ice Cream House was out of regular vanilla and we had to use their vegan vanilla for the bracket. I recognize that that may have unfairly brought down their average, but our judge enjoyed it more than their Popular and wished the Dulce de Leche was made with the nondairy vanilla, so.
Popular Flavor: Salted Crack Caramel
Perhaps the most famous — and definitely the most literary — artisanal shop in NYC (its name is inspired by a Walt Whitman poem). They recently opened a location in Disney World, so Ample Hills is basically the new Shake Shack.
Morawa: The Salted Crack Caramel is too much. I had one bite and can’t finish.
Hershberger: Sometimes it’s too flavorful. I love that ice cream, but it’s very polarizing.
204 Sackett St., Cobble Hill
Popular Flavor: Amagansett Sea Salted Caramel
Milkmade is predominantly a homemade Ice Cream of the Month subscription service (consider this a hint for my next birthday), with a constantly-rotating roster of flavors in their storefront.
Morawa: The Salted Caramel is so creamy and smooth, it melts in my mouth.
In this round, we have a glut of caramel flavors. According to Hartnett, Even Van Leeuwen’s Honeycomb had a bit of a burnt-caramel taste.
“I would expect Brooklyn ice cream to have a little bit more variety,” Morawa said, “as opposed to every single place being like ‘here’s our salted caramel’.”
It’s a fair point, though I think this says more about the Brooklyn consumer than the ice cream makers.
This also brings up the question: though these are the most popular flavors, are they really the best flavors? So many caramel flavors were interesting to compare side by side, but it made the other flavors, like Davey’s Speculoos Chocolate Chip, that much more novel. (That flavor is excellent, by the way). Maybe the caramels were a liability, though the shops didn’t even know it.
The classic, no-frills chain Uncle Louie G gave us some interesting conversations about the importance of doing a simple thing well (which, of course, is why we used vanilla ice cream in the first place).
“The vanilla from Louie G is fantastic,” Hartnett said. “The Cookies and Cream was good and it was exactly what I expected it to be, which is nice. But the vanilla — I think the simplicity of it is refreshing. This is just exactly how vanilla ice cream is supposed to taste.”
“It’s kind of like going to an Italian restaurant and just having the meatballs,” Silver said.
But, is that simple expertise enough to make Louie G the best ice cream in Brooklyn?
During the first round, we all realized what a vast undertaking this would be.
“It’s starting to sink in how much goddamn ice cream we’re gonna have,” Hartnett said. “You can tell I’m getting there because I can’t physically finish all these now,” Morawa said.
I compared this to a wine tasting: “We gotta start spitting.” (We didn’t. Does anyone at a wine tasting?)
Now, without further ado, the scores for Round 1:
Brooklyn Bell’s the Local: 9.5
Taste the Tropics: 5
Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory: 8.5
Blue Marble: 9
Sweet Dynasty: 5
Uncle Louie G: 8
Van Leeuwen: 5
The Ice Cream House: 5
Ample Hills: 6.25
Stay tuned tomorrow as Brooklyn Bell, Blue Marble, Uncle Louie G, and Ample Hills move on to Round 2!