The Best Soft Serve Ice Cream from Coast to Coast

Soft-serve ice cream may have retro appeal, but shops across the country are giving the ice cream we know a whole new swirl.

By: Patty Lee
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Los Angeles: Magpies Softserve

Balmy Los Angeles has no shortage of ice cream, including this serve-centric spot in Silverlake. Chefs Warren and Rose Schwartz make everything from scratch, including the ice cream base. For flavor inspiration, the husband-and-wife team looks to childhood (Rose, who is Korean-American, grew up drinking yuzu-honey tea; Warren, a native Californian, made malted chocolate shakes at his first kitchen gig) and transform them into next-level soft serve. For those who prefer to go dairy-free, there are vegan options, in flavors like black sesame, corn-almond or horchata.

San Francisco: Twirl and Dip

Twirl and Dip specializes in vanilla and chocolate, but their take on the classics is anything, but boring. Upgrades by owners Meg Hilgartner and Siri Skelton include high-quality dairy (from Straus Family Creamery and Clover), organic vanilla beans, Mama Ganache’s dutched cocoa and chocolate from local chocolatier Tcho. Accompanied by hand-rolled sugar cones and a dark-chocolate dip (sea salt optional, but highly recommended), these bear little resemblance to vanilla cones of yesteryear.

Austin: General Tso’Boy

In keeping with the restaurant’s East-meets-West concept, the sole dessert at Jessica and Gary Wu’s fast-casual sandwich shop comes in flavors that harken back to their Chinese-American roots. Cups of luscious soft serve — always made with dairy from Mill King Creamery — are inspired by sweets like milk black tea, toasted bread infused with condensed milk, and nutty almond cookies.

Santa Monica: Sweet Rose Creamery

If the offerings at the small-batch shop seem in tune with what’s available at the farmers’ market, that’s because Chef Shiho Yoshikawa shops there. All of the ice cream is crafted using organic eggs, Clover Organic Farms dairy and seasonal produce, meaning that flavors change monthly based on what’s fresh. Two soft-serve options are usually on tap. Though you can order them separately, they’re typically incredible as a pair — swirled together, her a combo of lime and gingerbread tastes just like a frozen key lime pie.

New York City: Soft Swerve

You’ve probably seen them on Instagram — jet black or red cones filled with a spiral of purple — but the soft serve at this Chinatown newcomer is more than just a foodie photo op. One of four flavors currently on offer, ube (purple yam) is earthy and rich, but not too thick — a delicate balance that took owners Michael Tsang and Jason Liu weeks to perfect. The duo also concocts colorful sundaes that pay tribute to both their favorite New York City areas (Strawberry Fields features matcha soft serve topped with strawberry powder) and retro desserts — all deliciously creamy and yes, photogenic.

Chicago: Yusho

Sophisticated may not be the first word that comes to mind when describing soft serve, but it’s an accurate adjective for chef Matthias Merges’ frozen desserts. He conjures delicate, yet refreshing flavors like sake, buckwheat and soy-rice, then accents them with garnishes (honey-sesame crumble, sochu caramel) that don’t overpower the ice cream.

New York City: Milk Bar

Lots of pastry chefs credit Christina Tosi for the revival of soft-serve love. Her lickable opus, Cereal Milk, was inspired by cereal bowl leftovers and has spawned countless imitations. The sweets guru has reimagined the milk with many other cereals, and innovated plenty of other desserts as ice cream (sweet potato pie and the house Crack Pie, for example). Pro-tip: Skip the sprinkles for a generous coating of Tosi’s signature cornflake crunch — it’s every bit as addictive as it sounds.

Austin: Cow Tipping Creamery

Timothy and Corey Sorenson’s excellent soft serve flavors go into creative sundaes that are appropriately dubbed “stackers.” Each one alternates between creamy curls and homemade trimmings so every spoonful is equal parts ice cream and topping. Pick from the rotating soft serve flavors and Cow Tipping’s stacker combos (for example, the Gimme S’more) or get creative and build your own from nearly 30 sauces, fruits, candies, cakes and crumbs.

Chicago: XOCO

There’s nothing subtle about the offerings at Rick Bayless’ Mexican street-food joint, so expect bold flavors from the soft serve. Dreamed up by Pastry Chef Wendy Santana using local ingredients, the options rotate seasonally, and include strawberries in the summer, and spicy Mexican chocolate in the winter. Toppings pack just as much of a punch — think bacon-pepita streusel or dark chocolate-pistachio bark.

Los Angeles: Drips / Swirls

This Koreatown cafe is named for its two signature offerings: pour-over coffee and soft serve. The latter comes in two signature flavors — charcoal crispy rice and matcha mint — with rotating options inspired by L.A.’s diversity. So far, Chef DJ Park has whipped up misugaru, a toasted grain powder popular in Korea; ube, the Filipino purple yam; plus all-American classics like cotton candy and orange creamsicle.

Seattle: Trove

Trove is more like four restaurants in one — there’s a space for drinking, another for barbecue, one for noodles and at the very front, a mini ice cream truck slinging Pastry Chef Renee Bolstad’s whimsical parfaits. Three of her housemade frozen custards are available at once and she layers them into mason jars to fashion sundaes that combine creative toppings like jello, pop rocks, meringues and creative caramels. Combinations rotate, but recently included Cracker Jacks (peanut butter frozen custard, molasses cake, togarashi caramel corn and peanuts) and Pike St. Slam (five-spice frozen custard, French toast bread pudding, orange-cinnamon sauce).