By Emily Laskin
You gotta love soft serve: it’s all-American, it’s got that smooth and fluffy texture, and it used to be the dessert of choice at fast-food joints and trucks blaring annoying jingles. These days soft serve is back in an all-grown-up kind of way, with creative toppings and quality ingredients. Here are some surprising (and a couple of predictable) East Bay spots to get your soft serve fix before that El Niño weather kicks in. We’re sure we’ve missed some — leave us a note about your favorite soft serve spot in the comments section.
Benchmark Pizzeria, Kensington
Benchmark Pizzeria, a farm-to-table Italian spot in Kensington, is the winner of this soft-serve roundup. Even among a whole host of East Bay establishments that are playing with a Straus ice-cream base right now, Benchmark stands out. The chocolate-vanilla swirl with sea salt and delicate and delicious Seka Hills olive oil is to die for. Other creamy pleasures on offer are a classic pizzeria-style sundae and a cherry soda float. Benchmark isn’t, obviously, just an ice cream destination. The pizza is excellent. And a stellar rock playlist — at a totally unobtrusive volume — will please anyone who was a teenager between 1965 and 1995. This place is worth the trip, and really, Kensington isn’t that far away! Benchmark Pizzeria is at 1568 Oak View Ave. (at Colusa), Kensington. Connect with the pizzeria on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Juhu Beach Club, Temescal
Juhu Beach Club, that delightfully quirky, dimly lit and brightly colored Indian-ish spot in a Temescal parking lot, is a slightly unusual soft-serve venue. It isn’t an ice-cream parlor or a burger window (though they do a mean slider), but, on closer inspection, JBC and soft serve might be a perfect fit. Reads as slightly kitschy but tastes incredible? Check. An ultra-American standard that gets even better with South Asian flavors? Check. Feel like you might be a little too old for it? Check check check! The dessert on offer here is a bowl of Straus vanilla soft serve plus various creative and homemade toppings like curried peanuts, TCHO chocolate bits and rosewater. It’s a perfect way to cool down after JBC’s spicy fare. Side (dairy-based) note: the yogurt lassi is also killer. Juhu Beach Club is at 5179 Telegraph Ave. (at 51st Street), Oakland. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Hawker Fare, Uptown
The always-fun Hawker Fare is another one of the restaurants around the East Bay offering Straus base soft serve with its own toppings. The creamy goods of the moment are the pair of sundaes, both made with condensed milk soft serve and done up in the same playful Thai street food style of the rest of the menu. The Hawker Sundae is topped with salted palm sugar candy, red beans, puffed rice and lime whipped toping. The Ovaltine Sundae is sprinkled with, you guessed it, Ovaltine, and topped with a ton of whipped cream. These sundaes are seriously sweet. Even this writer’s nearly insatiable sweet tooth was almost overwhelmed. Almost, but not quite — Hawker Fare’s savory dishes can be both spicy and funky, and the sweet and milky deserts are a great contrast. Plus they made me, until quite recently an Ovaltine skeptic, a new convert. Hawker Fare is at 2300 Webster St. (at 23rd Street), Oakland. Connect with the restaurant on Twitter and Instagram.
Cheese Board Pizza Collective, Gourmet Ghetto
Who doesn’t like the Cheese Board? This place needs no introduction but, in case you didn’t know, the beloved Berkeley pizza joint also make its own soft serve. And to ensure the most intensely creamy texture, they do it with buffalo milk. That’s right folks — buffalo! Soft serve is always pretty creamy and it’s usually also super smooth. But this stuff is really, really creamy and super extra smooth. They offer a range of flavors, but the strawberry — with serious fruitiness and discernable berry pieces — is a stand-out. Cheese Board Pizza Collective is at 1512 Shattuck Ave. (at Vine), Berkeley. Connect with the collective on Facebook and Twitter.
Timeless Coffee Roasters and Bakery, Piedmont Avenue
Vegan soft serve is a thing, and, at least at Timeless Coffee, it’s a treat. On a recent visit, the flavors on tap were chocolate, made from a nut base, and banana, with a “mostly fruit” base. Though this soft serve isn’t an exact replica of milky varieties — the texture isn’t quite as smooth, and it was a fair bit colder — it is delectable in its own right. The banana was refreshing and fruity and pleasantly not-too-sweet. An excellent snack for the last of our hot days — or try the coffee float after it cools down. Timeless Coffee Roasters and Bakery is at 4252 Piedmont Ave. (between Glenwood and Echo avenues), Oakland. Connect with the coffee shop on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Curbside Creamery, Temescal
Last but not least is Oakland newcomer Curbside Creamery. The Bay’s got a lot of cute ice cream parlors, but this one might just be the cutest. Plus, it’s located in Temescal Alley which has got to be a front runner for the cutest retail street in Oakland. In addition to the usual ice-cream shop suspects, Curbside always has two soft-serve flavors available. They switch them up every few weeks — on a recent visit they were serving vanilla with a dairy base and vegan coffee flavor with a cashew base. The vanilla-coffee swirl was extremely satisfying, and the textures of the vegan and dairy flavors were remarkably similar. The cashew base gave the coffee flavor a distinct nuttiness that really worked with the slightly bitter notes of the beans. Be sure to try the chocolate waffle cone while you’re at it. And check out their ice cream trike at several local farmer’s markets — times and locations are available on their website. Curbside Creamery is at 482 49th St. (between Telegraph Avenue and Clark Street), Oakland. Connect with the ice-cream parlor on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.