For soft serve fanatics like me, the greatest insult may be suggesting frozen yogurt as a perfectly sufficient substitute when cravings for that fluffy, light, creamy dreamy swirl begin to hit. Let me be blunt — fro-yo just doesn’t cut it.
Aside from frozen yogurt’s tart tangy flavor, another big difference is the fat. Frozen yogurt generally has a milk fat content of .5–3%; soft serve tends to float around 4–6% milk fat (traditional ice cream, in comparison, has a milk fat content of about 10% or higher). The greater the fat content, the more air the mixture can hold, which means a lighter, softer and creamier frozen dessert. Since fro-yo often has less fat than soft serve, it’s icier and less smooth. Although, to be fair, some frozen yogurt is fluffier and tastier than really low-grade soft serve, especially soft serves made from low-fat powdered mixes or ones that haven’t had enough air pumped into them. If you get a vanilla soft serve that’s more yellow than white and a bit on the icy side, it was likely made from a cheap mix.
The appeal of soft serve goes beyond taste and texture. In its simplest form, especially when dispensed in that iconic twisty shape into a cake cone, it takes us back to childhood — a reward for being good, a welcome stop on a sweltering summer road trip, a family outing to an amusement park or other fun attraction. Even when dressed up in adult clothing, served in a cup at a fancy restaurant and topped with ingredients like olive oil and sea salt, soft serve can still set off that sensitive nerve of nostalgia.
Although soft serve is appearing in more cafés and on more dessert menus, it’s still not as common as ice cream or frozen yogurt, so I always keep a running mental list of places that offer it. But now with summer in full swing, I thought it was high time to get this list in writing, especially since Nosh’s 2015 soft serve guide is a bit limited and outdated.
I included all the places I could find within Berkeley and Oakland that offer soft serve, as well a few worth mentioning in nearby East Bay cities. For the record, I purposefully excluded McDonald’s, IKEA and other large chains, although when the soft serve hankering hits, even those will satisfy in a pinch. I also did not include spots that serve frozen custard (which contain egg), like Rita’s in Alameda or Flavor Brigade in Dimond.
So here’s to my fellow soft serve lovers. Let me know if I missed any of your favorite places in the comments section below.
For those who’ve had a taste from East Coast soft serve truck, Mister Softee, you may have wondered why anyone hasn’t yet brought a fleet of these trucks to the East Bay. Well, it turns out there is a Mister Softee truck based in Redwood City that can be booked for events across the Bay Area. But here’s a better idea if you’re looking for a mobile swirl — Brown Cap. The Berkeley-based soft serve truck offers vanilla or Dutch chocolate Straus organic soft serve in a variety of sizes, in cones or bowls and with several topping options (most notable: Maldon sea salt and raspberry powder). Brown Cap also serves vanilla soft serve as an affogato with Jittery John’s cold brew coffee or as a float with Stewart’s root beer or orange cream soda. The truck can be hired for private events, but you can also find it parked at local spots around the East Bay. This summer, Brown Cap can be found at 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sundays, at 1911 Fourth St. in Berkeley and from 1–6 p.m., Thursdays, at the south entrance of Jewell’s Terrace Park in Albany. Follow Brown Cap on Twitter for up-to-date information on its next appearance.
Cheese Board’s soft serve is hand’s down my absolute favorite. Made with buffalo milk from Petaluma’s Double 8 Dairy, which has a higher fat content than cow’s milk, the soft serve is extra rich and velvety. Cheese Board’s pizzeria always offers two flavors, which rotate with the season, and of course, can be combined as a swirl. On my recent visit, Cheese Board was serving plain (no, not vanilla, but more like “sweet cream,” according to the Cheese Board employee we asked) and salted caramel. Here’s a tip: Instead of getting in line again for dessert, order your soft serve with your pizza. After you’re finished chowing down on slices, skip the line and pick up your cone at the counter when you’re ready. Just remember to keep your receipt! Cheese Board Pizza Collective, 1512 Shattuck Ave. (at Vine), Berkeley
One night just before 9 p.m. in Berkeley, I was in the mood for dessert and nothing seemed open — then I saw the illuminated neon sign on University Avenue promising me a fast, cheap and satisfying dessert fix at a good “old fashion” walk-up window. Ah, sweet relief! The soft serve at Fosters Freeze is probably not made with the highest-quality milk base, but the website claims its made with “real milk” and it does hold a nice coiled shape with its airy creamy texture, which was better than some of the more expensive artisanal versions I had. Fosters Freeze gives the option of chocolate dipped cones, but I can’t recommend it — the chocolate is more plastic than palatable. You can also try the soft serve in shakes, parfaits, sundaes, Freezes and Twisters, but I always go old-school: a chocolate-vanilla swirl cone. Fosters Freeze, 1199 University Ave. (at Curtis), Berkeley
West Berkeley Thai restaurant Funky Elephant is my favorite under-the-radar soft serve spot. It uses Straus organic soft serve base, which it then blends with fresh fruits purées or teas. It rotates its offering once or twice a month, depending on the flavor’s popularity and the season. Funky Elephant also rotates its offering of toppings, depending on the featured flavor. For example, the Thai tea and mango flavors have been paired with sweet sticky rice and coconut cream; matcha soft serve with Froot Loops; and strawberry soft serve with chocolate Pocky, strawberry wafers and Milo chocolate malt powder. A cooling cup of soft serve is a perfect follow-up to a spicy meal at this fun and funky spot. Funky Elephant, 1313 Ninth St. (at Gilman), Berkeley
Super Duper Burger
Berkeley’s newest soft serve spot is San Francisco-based burger chain, Super Duper. As with many of the places mentioned on this list, Super Duper uses a Straus organic mix for its chocolate and vanilla flavors, which it offers in cake cones — plain or dipped in chocolate. On my visit for this story, I decided to get lunch while I was there. Turns out, it was another case of my eyes being bigger than my stomach. After scarfing down a mini burger, fries and soft drink, I was almost too full for dessert. Praise be for the kid-size option! Because Super Duper Berkeley just opened this week, you may find a line out the door during peak hours, but take note that you can order your soft serve with your meal to pick up later. Super Duper Burger, 2355 Telegraph Ave. (at Durant), Berkeley
Two-year-old Uji Time in Berkeley has become synonymous with its signature taiyaki cones. These ice cream cones are based on the traditional Japanese pancakes, which are filled with adzuki beans and griddled in fish-shaped molds. At Uji Time, the taiyaki cones are filled with red bean paste or nutella before adding soft serve (or “soft cream” as it’s called here) into the cavernous fish’s maw. Soft serve choices are matcha, black sesame, tofu and a changing seasonal offering — on my recent visit, it was cantaloupe. Uji Time also offers another Japanese-style dessert called the parfait — soft serve is piled high with sweet red bean, mochi, mini taiyaki, Castella cake, crispy crepe and corn flakes. Or you can keep it simple, and get your soft serve in a plain waffle cone. NB: Check the clock before your visit — Uji Time is open 3–9 pm. weekdays; 1–11 p.m. weekends. Uji Time, 2575 Telegraph Ave. (at Parker), Berkeley.
This six-month-old café in Berkeley flips on its soft serve machine at noon to dispense cups or cones of vanilla, chocolate or swirl. Zazzi’s owner Cassandra Chen also owns Café Fanny granola and C.C. Made, which makes caramel popcorn and caramel sauces — all the above are ideal soft serve toppings. Other things to sprinkle on your frozen swirls (made with Darigold soft serve mix) include fresh fruit, coconut flakes, chia seeds, cookies and whipped cream, which can be added for a 50-cents each. If you’re having trouble deciding on the perfect combination, choose from six sundae options. Zazzi Foods, 1398 University Ave. (at Acton), Berkeley
Arthur Mac Tap & Snack
Longfellow pizza and beer garden Arthur Mac has only one dessert option — malted vanilla soft serve in a classic cake cone — and that’s A-OK with me. Arthur Mac uses a Darigold vanilla-flavored soft serve mix, to which it adds malted milk powder for extra richness. Add sprinkles or chocolate sauce for best results. Arthur Mac Tap & Snack, 4006 MLK Jr. Way (at 40th), Oakland
This Temescal Alley ice cream spot gets major points for offering both regular hard-packed ice cream and soft serve. It also gets props for offering small sizes, for when you want something sweet, but you’re not super hungry. And extra stars for being open until 10 p.m. daily. For its soft serve, there are two rotating (and often unique) flavors that change weekly — one is dairy and one is vegan made with a cashew base. I’ve found Curbside’s vegan soft serve to be just as creamy and rich as flavors containing cow’s milk, without being overly thick or gluey like some cashew creams can be. On my recent visit, I appreciated that the mint chocolate (vegan) was firmer and less melty than the vanilla bean (dairy). Curbside’s ice creams and soft serves are served in a cup or your choice of cone — cake or sugar, or for an extra cost, in regular or chocolate waffle cones. Curbside Creamery, 482 49th St. (between Telegraph and Clark), Oakland
Snow White Coffee
A handwritten sign recently went up in Snow White Coffee, a sweet little café on Piedmont Avenue, announcing that soft serve is back. At least on Fridays and Saturdays, the two days it’s available here. On my visit, owner Alex Bell mentioned that soft serve may be a limited-time thing if more people don’t come in for it, so get over to Snow White pronto if you want to keep this operation going. For now, you can get Straus organic vanilla soft serve, offered in a cup as is, with olive oil and pink Himalayan sea salt, as an affogato or in a nitro float. Snow White Coffee, 3824 Piedmont Ave. (near Rio Vista), Oakland
Over in Uptown Oakland, Sweet Belly serves two flavors of soft serve (that rotate monthly), but that’s just the beginning. The draw here is that the creamy frozen treat serves as a vehicle for all kinds of sweet extras to add on top. You can go nuts and add different flavored miniature donuts, sprinkles, crunchy toppings, sweet drizzles and dipping sauces (although weirdly enough, no nuts nor fresh fruits). Sweet Belly, 435 19th St. (at Broadway), Oakland
The following disclaimer is found on Timeless’s website: “We assume no liability for injury and/or addiction resulting from excessive or compulsive consumption of soft serve ice cream.” Fair warning, although, as the all-vegan café only offers soft serve on Saturdays and Sundays at this time, and only at its Piedmont Avenue location, the danger is somewhat mitigated. Timeless’s soft serve flavors change regularly but are always dairy-free. Sometimes it’s made with soy milk (using a base from Chicago Soy Dairy), other times it’s fruit based. Get it in a cup, cone, in an affogato or as a coffee float. I don’t normally dig on soy milk frozen treats, but the soft serve at Timeless somehow never has that unpleasant planty flavor that many soy creams have. On a recent warm Sunday, I enjoyed the appropriately timeless classic combo of vanilla and chocolate. Timeless Coffee Roasters and Bakery, 4252 Piedmont Ave. (between Glenwood and Echo), Oakland
Along with excellent wood-fired pizzas, Kensington’s Benchmark Pizzeria serves Straus organic vanilla and Dutch chocolate soft serve, offered in a variety of ways. Get either flavor (or both) in a cup with toppings like rainbow or chocolate sprinkles, whipped cream, chocolate or butterscotch sauce, or olive oil and sea salt. If you’re looking for an even more decadent end to your meal, there’s the Benchmark Sundae, which tops vanilla soft serve with your choice of chocolate or butterscotch sauce, whipped cream, almonds and an Amarena cherry on top. A lighter, more refreshing option — the Coke float combines vanilla soft serve with Mexican Coke. Benchmark Pizzeria, 1568 Oak View Ave. (at Colusa), Kensington
Little Star’s sister restaurant, Boss on Solano Avenue recently introduced a new menu. Once offering a fairly stripped down menu of fast food-style burgers and sides with a gourmet slant, like beef tallow fries, the new Boss menu features more burgers, sandwiches, salads and swapped the beef fat for vegetarian-friendly fries. And yes, the restaurant also changed its soft serve. While Boss used to serve Straus organic, it made the switch to Darigold organic for its vanilla and chocolate soft serve. Get it in a cone, bowl or as a milkshake. Boss Burger, 1187 Solano Ave. (at Cornell), Albany
I’ve always liked the soft serve (and burgers) at Gott’s Roadside, but it wasn’t until I started researching for this story that I realized the Bay Area burger chain uses both Straus and Double 8 Dairy for its soft serve. (No wonder it’s so good!) The newest Gott’s opened in Walnut Creek, which isn’t as close as I’d like it, but at least it’s on our side of the bay. The soft serve comes in two sizes and four flavors (Straus organic chocolate and vanilla; Double 8 salted caramel and coffee). Additional toppings and dips are available for 99 cents each, including rainbow sprinkles, chocolate chips, almonds, and chocolate or peanut butter dip. Gott’s Roadside, 1275 Main St. (at Botelho), Walnut Creek