Restaurant News & Reviews

A scoop or two on exploring ice cream around Sacramento from tried-and-true to new takes

With our hot summer days, warm nights and strollable neighborhoods, Sacramento ought to be a great ice cream town. But just try to amble on the grid as dusk falls, cone in hand, taking licks to keep it from dripping.

It’s not easy to get an all-American scoop or an innovative flavor combo in Midtown. Meanwhile, there’s unlimited frozen yogurt, which as the sitcom “The Good Place” makes clear is hell’s own version of ice cream. What gives, Sacramento?

“I’ve lived here my whole life, it’s one of the hottest places in the Valley, and there are like four places to go get ice cream,” says Jess Milbourn, who says he grew up going to Gunther’s and Leatherby’s, and who opened West Sacramento’s Devil May Care to help address this devastating gap.

In celebration of this National Ice Cream Day – Sunday, July 15 – it’s worth exploring our relative dearth of dairy, and the hopeful signs that the corner is turning. The hotly (or maybe we should say coldly) anticipated Milk Money is set to debut next month, and a Winn Park ice creamery from a team including restaurateur Clay Nutting is in the offing.

Other fresh flavors and styles of ice cream are crystallizing around the region, with shops such as Devil May Care (322 3rd St., West Sacramento, 916-572-0456); The Good Scoop in Davis (130 G St., Davis, 530-746-2434), which offers a signature black sesame; strawberry Oreo, black-tea shortbread and apricot rose at Davis Creamery (113 E St., 530-564-4315); and Cream in Arden Arcade (1600 Ethan Way, 916-568-9470) selling such fun flavors as “cinful churro.”

One local ice cream wizard has quietly been serving extraordinary ice cream flavors in Midtown for ten years – but she’s better known as a chocolatier. Ginger Hahn of Ginger Elizabeth (1801 L St., 916-706-1738) offers packaged pints, macaron ice cream sandwiches in flavors like lemon gingersnap and mini to-go cups. This summer, a lime basil pie flavor – reminiscent of an utterly sublime key lime pie – with graham crackers made from scratch with Del Rio Farms honey and Red Fife wheat from Full Belly Farms, knocked our socks off. Plus, the pint-sized shop – too small for scooping cones, Hahn says – hosts ice cream socials monthly in the summer. Upcoming dates are July 14, August 11 (featuring rose ice cream and local-raspberry sorbet), September 8, and October 13.

The region is also churning with twists on the classic American ice cream, including trendy rolled ice cream at such places as 8° Fahrenheit (4400 Freeport Blvd., 916-455-1633) and Icicles (1431 Howe), both small chains; doughnut ice cream sandwiches and “puffs” at The Parlor Ice Cream Puffs (2620 Fair Oaks Blvd., 916-977-3997); and Italian-style gelato at Devine (1221 19th St., 916-446-0600)

We realize saying Sacramento hasn’t been living up to its full ice cream potential steam a few. But hold your angry letters. Rest assured, a call for more ice cream isn’t meant as a knock on our beloved, venerable ice cream parlors, Gunther’s Quality Ice Cream in Curtis Park (2801 Franklin Blvd., 916-457-6646) and Vic’s in Land Park (3199 Riverside Blvd., 916-448-0892). The local chain Leatherby’s, too, has its flagship shop in Arden Arcade (2333 Arden Way, 916-920-8382). They’re all sweetly frozen in time and just perfect the way they are. But, we’d argue, there’s plenty of demand for more.

Both Gunther’s and Vic’s have both been around since the 1940s, and they both do strong work. Gunther’s neon sign, depicting “Jugglin’ Joe,” is an ice cream icon, and both shops send their wholesale product around the region, including other scoop shops, like Burr’s in East Sacramento. On a balmy (read: scorching) evening, lines at Gunther’s can snake down the block – a clear sign that Sacramento is screaming for more.

Although we wouldn’t change a single flavor or sundae topping at one of the classic parlors, there’s plenty of room for more ice cream innovation. We’ve been happily contenting ourselves with simple rocky road or mint chip on a sugar cone, and trust us, there’s not a single thing wrong with that.

Meanwhile, cities like San Francisco have for years had frozen-treat wizards concocting combos like Humphry Slocombe’s iconic Secret Breakfast (cornflakes and bourbon) or Bi-Rite Creamery’s peanut butter swirl with chocolate pearls or peach cobbler with Masumoto peaches. They don’t even really need ice cream in San Francisco! And we have far more amazing summer fruit to work with right here in the farm-to-fork capital.

“We need to fill a gap,” says Edward Martinez, the pastry chef formerly of San Francisco’s two-Michelin-starred Lazy Bear who is the sugar whiz at soon-to-open Milk Money, which will also sell doughnuts. “All you have here is basics like Gunther’s, and they’re good, but we want to bring Sacramento an ice cream style like Humphry Slocombe.”

Martinez is tight-lipped about specific flavors but says Milk Money – now projected to open next month – will offer artisanal treats including frozen bars and ice cream sandwiches. “Be ready for really cool things.”

There are plenty of reasons why the capital region may have been slower to develop an innovative ice cream culture. For one thing, ice cream is a relatively low-margin business that, to be done right, requires lots of space and has a heavy burden of regulation. For such a fun and seemingly carefree food, ice cream is surprisingly complex and technical from a food-science point of view, which may also discourage entrepreneurs.

“To run legitimate ice cream production, it’s a state-inspected facility, not just the health department,” explains Michael Hargis, owner of Milk Money. “We had to slow down a bit for that reason.” Now, though, the shop’s design – which Martinez calls “gorgeous to look at” – is set, and they are “confident about a mid-August opening date,” according to Martinez.

“The biggest challenge of ice cream is just the footprint required to do it properly and making it pencil,” says Clay Nutting, owner of East Sacramento’s Canon, whose team is in the early planning and design stages of a casual ice cream and beer establishment in Winn Park.

It’s not just space that’s expensive. “Vanilla beans are $300 a pound right now,” says Hahn of Ginger Elizabeth, which has “frozen-milk product plant” license from the state of California for its West Sacramento production facility.

The state license requires particular pasteurization equipment and a “cold room,” adding fiscal burdens for would-be creameries. Such requirements mean that many scoop shops and parlors use prepared bases, adding flavors to their own specifications.

Milbourn, a chef formerly of The Eatery, chose this route when he opened West Sacramento’s charming, tiny Devil May Care (a reference to ice cream’s chill vibe) in November 2016, using bases from Straus Creamery. “When we found our spot, it was really small. We couldn’t put a kitchen in it,” he says. “We can adjust and flavor our base but not cook dairy and eggs for pasteurization.”

Despite such limitations, Milbourn offers a daily rotation of flavors like a creamy, luscious blueberry cheesecake and fresh-tasting, intense mint chip.

“I don’t want to be, like, ‘we’re the trailblazer,’ but we’re one of the first new places making ice cream with that farm-to-fork ethos,” he said. “We’re using fresh produce and we contact urban farm programs in Sacramento.”

Milbourn, who lives in West Sacramento, chose to go in on the west side of the river not just because it was close to home but also because of the ease of doing business with the city.

By contrast, Nutting’s prospective Winn Park creamery is in the heart of Sacramento, in a city-owned the vintage fire-department communications center at 28th and P Streets in Midtown. The team is currently working on structural assessments with the city before construction documents can be prepared, so strolling the park with a cone is still a couple of years away, says Nutting.

Hahn says the learning curve can be daunting. “You have to know what you’re doing to make really good ice cream,” she said. “The way that we formulate ice cream is the way I formulate my chocolates. It has to have certain amount of sugar and everything in specific percentages so it turns out creamy and not icy.” Hahn’s ice cream uses a very low churn, meaning it incorporates less air – known as “overrun” – and is “super rich and dense,” she says.

“It’s awesome what we’re doing,” says Hahn, who acknowledges her ice cream has been a bit under-the-radar by comparison to the recognition she’s received for her chocolates. “Every little thing we do we make from scratch.”

Taken together – between the tried-and-true establishments and the new kids on the block – these labors of love could shape Sacramento into the kind of ice cream town we all deserve. And that’s good for all of us, says Devil May Care’s Milbourn. “I can’t wait to go get Milk Money,” he says. “It’s so exciting. I still go everywhere and eat ice cream.”