Take That, Baskin-Robbins!

"Ralph Nader probably won't give it his stamp of approval. But the Saturday night at the soda fountain crowd will recognize it immediately: the old lick test."

June 1973By and Comments

DALLAS IS A CITY OF some 50 ice cream flavors. It did not reach this pinnacle without a struggle.

In 1969, an entire seminar of the North Texas Youth in Service to Christ was disrupted when the host hotel inadvertently offered brandied peach ice cream as the final banquet dessert. Since it was too late to change the dessert, an enterprising chef simply changed the menu. Brandied peach became peachy-keen, and still another ice cream flavor was born.

When Baskin-Robbins decided to start calling its ice cream sandwiches “chilly burgers” no one dreamed it could cause anything but polite chuckles. Then one day, a customer asked for one “with cheese, please.” And pictures became a very necessary part of the “chilly burger” advertisement.

These are the kinds of pitfalls that unsophisticated ice cream consumers must face at every turn. After all, there was a time when Dallas was practically limited to two ice cream stores. And their offerings weren’t much more complicated than the traditional chocolate-vanilla-strawberry stuff. Folks on the east bank of the Trinity headed to Ashburn’s for an occasional scoop while the people in Oak Cliff were lapping up the cones Polar Bear offered.

Then, sometime in the mid 1960’s the Great Ice Cream Revolution took over the city. The first sign that the campaign had been launched was the opening of a Baskin-Robbins store. It marked the end of the easy ice cream choice.

Grown men have been known to collapse when faced with such an array of choices as bittersweet chocolate, chocolate divinity, German chocolate, double fudge, chocolate ripple, chocolate eclair, here comes the fudge, mint chocolate, rocky road, Swiss chocolate, chocolate almond, chocolate sundae, chocolate chip, and chocolate banana cake.

Many then give up and meekly ask for plain chocolate. Some become so panicked they can only mutter: strawberry.

“Is that strawberry parfait, strawberries and cream, strawberry sundae, strawberry short cake, strawberries in the snow, strawberry ice, strawberry cheesecake, strawberry blonde…” asks the soda jerk.

And it begins all over again.

It was clearly time for the great ice cream investigation.

Ralph Nader probably won’t give it his stamp of approval. Nor will MIT condone its scientific methods. But the Saturday night at the soda fountain crowd will recognize it immediately: the old lick test.

First stop, Swensen’s, which gets our only four-star rating. Swensen’s is truly an ice cream parlor, one of the few sit-down establishments in the city. Located in Turtle Creek Village, it’s a clean but not antiseptic place.

Other ice cream establishments specialize in either cones or concoctions, but Swensen’s is known for both. The ice cream is made at the store. (You can sit at the fountain and watch it being made.) And the sundaes, sodas, and other goodies are concocted with a bit of extra care. For example, the hot fudge is carefully dispensed throughout the sundae and does not end up on the bottom of the glass to be reached only after the ice cream has been eaten. The nuts are fresh, and the whipped cream isn’t synthetic.

The store is Swensen’s only Texas outlet. Headquarters for the chain are in California, and all the concoctions have a definite San Francisco stamp—the Earthquake, San Francisco Fire House Happy Birthday, Chocolate Ring-a-Ding, and the Gold Rush.

But for true ice cream fans, the proof of a parlor is in the ice cream it serves, not in its goodies. Swensen’s obviously measures up. One world traveler tasted his first bite of bitter-sweet chocolate and announced loudly to a packed house that it was the best ice cream he had ever eaten anyplace, even better than the George Cinq in Paris.

Swensen’s likes to talk about its quality, but the customer is frequently impressed first by the quantity. To put it plainly, Swensen’s is the biggest ice cream bargain in town. Its 24-cent dip weighs in at a quarter of a pound, dwarfing the standard 18-cent cone in most other parts of town.

As good as Swensen’s is, it does lose out every now and then. For example, Swensen’s German chocolate is definitely inferior to that dipped up at Baskin-Robbins. And the blueberry cheesecake at Baskin-Robbins tastes better than Swensen’s cheesecake flavors.

Possibly the best Swensen’s offering is chocolate divinity, a mouth-watering mixture of milk chocolate, marshmallow sauce and nuts. Also great: chocolate eclair, mint chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, black raspberry, turkish coffee, and strawberry (claimed by some to be the best strawberry in town).

One word of caution, however. If you want a marbled flavor, like chocolate divinity, wait for the middle of the bucket. Swensen’s seems to have trouble mixing its ingredients, and the marble is often rather thin on top.

Perhaps the best-known ice cream in town is Baskin-Robbins, which has stores all over the city. We give it three stars, but we admit to having friends who place it in the four-star category. Baskin-Robbins stores are small, unfortunately rather sterile, and the limited seating resembles grammar school desks. But the service is speedy.

The ice cream is good, and Baskin-Robbins’ creativity is fantastic. Discovering what the titles of the flavors mean is almost as much fun as eating the ice cream. Bite into a cone of Charlie Brownie, and you come up with (what else?) peanuts. And who but Baskin-Robbins would call an ice cream “baseball nut” and then stuff it full of raspberries? (These subtleties in naming, however, are frequently missed by the ice-cream-eating public, or so Baskin-Robbins reports.)

The company admits it sometimes becomes so involved in the naming of flavors that it often makes up the name first, then takes the name to the chef for him to dream up an ice cream to match. Hold that line, a name obviously inspired by the football season, is one such example.

And the company seems to have an endless supply of flavors. There’s Scotch on the rocks, key-lime pie, and here comes the fudge, just to name a few of the many Baskin-Robbins flavors.

There is even a rumor that Fidel Castro, a known ice cream aficionado, once claimed his country was on the verge of surpassing the United States in the number of ice cream flavors it had invented. That number, Mr. Castro said, was 26, and soon Cuba would have a whopping 42 flavors, a figure he believed would shame the American dairy industry .

He had not contended with Baskin-Robbins’ 350 flavors.

Our own favorites: Mandarin chocolate sherbet, lemon peel sherbet, chocolate banana cake, German chocolate, pistachio nut, pralines ‘n cream.

Mrs. Goff’s Ice Cream—also in several locations—was disappointingly inconsistent. It serves a very good group of chocolates, peppermint, coconut, and spumoni, to which we give three stars. These cost 21 cents a dip each, three cents more than the rest of the ice cream, which gets no stars. The good ice cream is made by Arthur’s Ice Cream Specialties, a small local operation. The rest of the ice cream comes from Oak Farms. It’s cheaper to buy it at the grocery store.

Ashburn’s, which used to be a good ice cream store, and Polar Bear are both disappointing. Ashburn’s—whose coconut and peach ice creams were once discussed in reverent tones—was recently purchased by Polar Bear. Now they both serve the same ice cream which has a puzzling day-glo color. The chocolate mint is chartreuse; the blue-berry marshmallow is an unbelievable purple; and it’s hard to believe that the chocolate isn’t licorice. The ice cream is also overly sweet and watery. All their locations are no-star visits.

The Neiman-Marcus special Wil Wright ice cream gets four star for expense. If you want the status of paying 74 cents for two scoops of ice cream, fine; otherwise don’t bother. This is sadly so, since Wil Wright used to be one of the finest ice creams in the country. The company is now owned by Foremost, and somewhere along the way, someone lost sight of the quality.

Go to Farrell’s in Town East Mall if you want a production. If you’re under 12, it’s great. After that it insults your intelligence. Farrell’s is big on concoctions—apparently no cones sold—but the quality of the ice cream is inferior. The sundaes and so forth are slapped together. But Farrell’s goes all out for birthdays. It bangs the drum, passes out hats, and gets the Farrell waiter/singers together for still another chorus of “Happy Birthday.” After that, a siren goes off. We did too.

The Highland Park Pharmacy, 3229 Knox, is for those who want to remember how it used to be. The drug store is one of the few old-fashioned soda fountains left in Dallas. It’s nothing fancy, just some stools and a green fountain top, but the sodas and milk shakes aren’t the only things like it used to be. So are the prices.

For the real ice cream freaks: If you want to mix your ice cream with your alcohol, the velvet hammer at the Beefeater, 2425 Cedar Springs, is definitely four stars. It mixes vanilla ice cream, brandy, white creme de cacao, and cointreau.

So the Great Ice Cream Revolution has brought the city a lot of places to lap up ice cream; it has introduced hundreds and hundreds of new and intriguing ice cream flavors; it has begun the battle of who is really the best—Swensen’s or Baskin-Robbins; and it has brought to Dallas a new breed of human being: the ice cream freak.

There are legends being forged now about the ice cream eating habits of this new group of citizens. One ice cream store has an every-night customer who always orders five cones of ice cream, each a different flavor, all for himself. One night, after she had dipped up the fifth cone and the customer appeared ready to ask for his sixth, the soda jerk decided the two of them had had enough. She refused to serve him another scoop unless he could produce a letter of permission from his doctor.

Another group of ice cream freaks are the guys who run Dallas’ Outward Bound program in wilderness survival: only problem is they don’t seem capable of surviving in the wilderness without their ice cream. Despite the incredible refrigeration problems involved in transporting a lot of ice cream that many miles, the Outward Bound group still does it. Their favorite flavors: chocolate mint and pumpkin.

There was another couple—and she was very pregnant—who also went to their favorite ice cream store each night. She diversified somewhat in her choices, but he always ordered five scoops in a bowl. They disappeared for two days, and when they returned, they had the baby in their arms.

And they’re still talking about the ice cream researcher who came in for one last survey. But it had been a long week, and she just couldn’t take any more.

“Alka seltzer,” she muttered to the soda jerk who asked for her order.

“We’re all out of that,” he replied, without blinking an eye. “How about some tutti frutti.”

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