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Nominations for the Tour de Soft Serve

March 21, 2011

First people said that all cider donuts were the same. Then others suggested that mini hot-dogs with meat sauce were indistinguishable from each other. So I am undeterred by the argument that all soft-serve ice cream is identical.

But I aim to find out once and for all.

In a few weeks I intend to lead an intrepid group of ice cream eaters on a tour of the finest seasonal ice cream stands the Capital Region has to offer. I hope you will join me on Saturday, April 9. Save the date, for more details will be forthcoming.

As of now, I have no details. Truth be told, I’ve never really liked soft serve ice cream, but here it seems to be a regional religion. So I’m really hoping that this outing will change my mind. There are a few places on my short list for inclusion, but I’m certain you all will nominate a few of your favorites

Before the nominations begin, I think it’s important to talk about criteria.

First, this tour is only about soft serve ice cream. I know there are some places that make dynamite hard ice cream, but that will have to be saved for another outing. It’s critical to compare likes to likes, so Moxie’s and The Ice Cream Man will just have to wait.

Second, the tasting evaluation will be limited to a vanilla-chocolate swirl. Yes, some places are special because of their wide range of fanciful flavors, and justifiably so. But every place has vanilla and chocolate. Arguably in ice cream eating, vanilla is the gateway flavor. Show me you take vanilla seriously, and I’ll consider the rest of your offerings. Fail on vanilla and lose me forever.

Third, I did recently talk to someone in the trade, and they suggested it’s an ice-cream stand’s hot fudge that makes or breaks its overall quality. I’m still considering if it makes sense to include this topping on the side. But obscuring the taste and texture of the product would only muddle the results.

Fourth, I have a distinct prejudice for ice cream stands that have withstood the test of time. Sure, there may be some new blood out there that has found a great way to churn soft serve that blows everyone else out of the water. Perhaps one or two of these places will make the roster, but that may be for a subsequent tour. Before evaluating the new guard, it is important to have a solid understanding of the classics.

That said, here are the places that are towards the top of my list.

– The Snowman in Troy
– Jim’s Tastee Freez in Delmar
– Guptill’s Coney Express in Latham
– Bumpy’s in Schenectady
– Jumpin’ Jacks in Scotia

There is one obvious omission. The big local favorite, Kurver Kreme in Albany, isn’t there. Last summer I found myself there a lot, and honestly I find their vanilla soft serve to be awful. What I like about Kurver are some of their flavors, and especially their fruity and icy soft serve sherbets. Clearly the place has its rabid fans given the lines to the curb, and I recognize it may need to be included just so it can be dismissed. But I’d prefer not to have to eat their vanilla again, if I can help it.

Bumpy’s may also be a bit random. My guess is that most people have never heard of it. And I’ve included the shop for no other reason besides the unlikely fact that it’s a seasonal ice cream parlor plus stand-alone attraction. And by that I mean they have a pool that is stocked with bumper boats. Yes, it’s a seasonal ice cream stand with enough real estate to have a bumper boat pool. How awesome is that?

My ideal plan would have the tour conclude at Jumpin’ Jacks for one last ice cream and maybe even some food by the river. It seems like a fitting end for a wonderful day.

So I look at the list above, and there are two places in jeopardy of falling out of the top five: Jim’s and Bumpy’s. What do you say? Which would be your top five? And are you up for the challenge of joining me on April 9?


30 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2011 9:07 am

    Ohh man! It looks like we’re going to be having dueling food events that day. I have been challenged by the proprietors of Wagon Train BBQ in Schenectady to tackle their Graveyard Burger Challenge (details forthcoming at my blog) and the date has also been set for April 9. I would have loved to participate in le Tour de Soft Serve.

    • March 21, 2011 10:03 am

      Sorry to hear that. These things are difficult to schedule. I would have loved to do the tour this upcoming weekend, but wasn’t able to get it organized in time. The following weekend is the Jewish Food Festival, and that left April 9. Best of luck with the challenge. Perhaps you can meet up with us for dessert and we can celebrate your victory over the Graveyard Burger Challenge.

  2. March 21, 2011 9:52 am

    curry freeze in rotterdam rules!

  3. March 21, 2011 10:13 am

    Kurver is an icon because families have been walking there and standing in line for four generations. The taste of the ice cream is nearly irrelevant, though I am willing to wager that their vanilla and chocolate twist will stand the test next to any Capital Region comparison you care to throw at them (short of Soft Custard which is another thing entirely).

    There is more to food than taste alone. Any valid ‘tour de soft serve’ will need to show this. That being said, I am wondering how much of a difference you’re really going to find place to place. If I’m right, soft serve ice cream comes in brand name form from distributors. Perhaps a better test of local stands would need to include their ‘specialty sundae’ or the choice of hot fudge as it complements their ice cream brand of choice. This would be a better indicator of proprietor judgement and would begin to include that feeling that an ice cream place can give you if you stood there being held by your grandfather, and now stand there holding your children.

    For example, Bumpy’s in Schenectady makes a sundae that is served in a mini plastic garbage can with sugar eyes that make it look like Oscar the Grouch is peeking out over the top. Lickety Split in East Greenbush makes their own fresh raspberry sauce in season. Kurver makes a Peanut Butter sundae that will make you say ‘nom’ and at Jumpin’ Jacks in the summer, your cone tops off a fish dinner or a Jack Burger with your family. You walk down the river with your ice cream to a free concert with your community, a perfect end to the day.

    Do it.

  4. March 21, 2011 10:19 am

    Oh man, I just got out of bed to get the computer and comment. I will BE there!!

    My favorite is Tastee Freeze. This is another one, like my cider donut preference, that I might like best because it’s where I went most often as a kid. I always get their baby cone size (it is a perfect portion) in chocolate, with rainbow sprinkles (I am six). I have only ventured occasionally to get the twist, which I also enjoy.

    As far as I am concerned, it is the only place to eat soft-serve. I can’t remember why I prefer the flavor, even though I had my first cone there last week. I suspect it has something to do with the texture. Some soft serve places have ice cream, especially chocolate, that comes out a little bit grainy. I hate that almost more than anything. Jim’s is my always and forever soft-serve, so I hope it stays on the list :D

    I also don’t like when it’s too sweet. But I’m not 100% sure, so I might even coerce someone into going out there with me today, in the kind-of-snow, to try it again so I can come here and get back to you.

    I hate Kurver. Not delicious. Always crowded.

    My second choice is Jumpin’ Jacks. There soft serve does have a very distinct flavor, I notice a huge difference between that and Tastee, but I can’t exactly remember why. I think something about the way it coats your tongue is different. The way they pile it on the cone is also a bit different, it’s fatter, which is fine, but I think I prefer my soft serve to be skinnier. This is a weird preference, but somehow the shape of food makes me think about it differently.

    I also love Jumpin’ Jacks because the ice cream usually follows a delicious assortment of hot dog, cheeseburger, onion rings, and my inexplicable favorite, the melted cheese sandwich. I also like that there are ducks, events, and softball games to watch in the summer, and a swing set. But flavor-wise it’s still not my favorite.

    I’ve heard of Bumpy’s, and I’ve been there once. I’m apathetic about it at best.

    Ross’s out by the Price Chopper in Slingerlands is my least favorite, and generally I will avoid it at all costs. This is mostly because I once ordered a milkshake there and ended up with something that more closely resembled chocolate milk, and it was 5$. I haven’t been back in as many years.

    I do think I also had Curry Freeze once, but I don’t remember it at all.

    Very excited! And there is just enough time for me to request off from work :)

    • March 21, 2011 11:00 am

      I love Ross’s…granted, it may be a proximity thing, but a baby twist makes my day, every day. I’ve never had one of their soft serves drip on me while I’m driving, which is worth a lot.

      And I am now craving a root beer float.

      • March 21, 2011 4:58 pm

        I think I’m just really turned off by what happened to my milkshake. The girl at the stand didn’t seem to think there was a problem with it either, this was ages ago, but I was totally miffed and am holding a grudge :p

        I do like that they have a little grassy knoll area to hop around on though.

  5. Phairhead permalink
    March 21, 2011 10:31 am

    Doesn’t all soft serve come from a machine? Not to the lone voice of dissent, but what’s the point in doing this?

    I grew up around the corner from what is now Bumpy’s. In the ’70’s & ’80’s it was called Creamy’s & they 3 flavours of soft serve

    • March 21, 2011 10:47 am

      I think most ice cream comes from a machine ;)

      I know soft-serve isn’t really–as far as I know–created or crafted in the same way as we think of regular ice cream or gelato, but there is definitely a distinct flavor difference between places. This might be that different pre-mixed product is being used, but still. A lot also depends on topping choice, what sprinkles are chosen (since sprinkles are my one true love) cone type and size.

      I know air content also has a lot to do with flavor of soft-serve, so it’s possible that different machines or different mixes allow more or less air and change the flavor and texture.

  6. March 21, 2011 10:41 am

    Another vote for Curry Freeze in Rotterdam please! I would love to know how it stacks up against others.

  7. March 21, 2011 11:30 am

    We are there.

  8. March 21, 2011 11:32 am

    Curry Freeze in Rotterdam is definitely worth a trip.
    Might I also suggest Country Drive In on Vischer Ferry Road in Clifton Park?

  9. Ellen Whitby permalink
    March 21, 2011 11:33 am

    Aren’t these places seasonal? Are they open yet?

    For soft serve ice cream I haven’t come across a favorite in the area. Growing up 2 blocks away from Carvel made that a favorite when I was a kid but the memories of great ice cream from there are about the ritual involved the outing. As a grown up, the taste of carvel is not special.

    Though I haven’t been there, I would like to try ice cream from the Cayuga Lake Creamery in Interlaken (near Ithaca). People have raved about their homemade ice cream since 2004 when they opened. I plan to visit in the summer when I will be in the area.

    Maybe your next ice cream tour will be for scooped ice cream. After I visit, I’ll let you know if they should be on your list.

    • Phairhead permalink
      March 21, 2011 2:03 pm

      Curry Freeze & Bumpy’s opened this past weekend….both serving quality Hershey’s (hard) ice cream :-)

  10. Kerosena permalink
    March 21, 2011 11:34 am

    Glad to hear I’m not the only one who doesn’t care for Kurver. No argument that it is a classic, but their ice cream is just not that good. I find that it has a sour-ish aftertaste.

    Soft serve is a big deal for me. It’s a rare treat, so when I have it, I always go to Jim’s Tastee Freez. @Kater and I have similar ideas about their ice cream: I also get the baby cone, but I always choose vanilla with chocolate sprinkles. Their sprinlkles are better than Kurver’s, too. Not that sprinkles really have so much taste, but the texture at Tastee Freez is just right. A little bit waxy, a little bit crunchy. Perfect.

  11. March 21, 2011 2:54 pm

    Soft-serve is definitely way more about nostalgia for me than flavor. We had those soft-serve machines in my college dining hall but I never would have eaten that. No! Soft-serve should only be eaten in spring and summer, outdoors.

  12. March 21, 2011 3:06 pm

    That’s an odd list, right there. Here’s where I’d pick:

    1. Kurver’s (I know, I know, but it’s the iconic Capital Region soft-serve spot)
    2. Country Drive-In in Clifton Park
    3. JJ’s Snack Bar in Ballston Spa
    4. Guptil’s has ice cream? Sure, then.
    5. The Snowman, which I’ve heard is good but have never been to.

    And for those up for a drive,
    6. Martha’s in Lake George — hey, their stuff is GOOD.

    (Delmar and Schenectady/Scotia are places I pretty much never go to… *shrug*)

  13. Mer permalink
    March 21, 2011 3:18 pm

    I third the vote for the Country Drive In in Clifton Park. Not sure if they are open yet, but I always hit them if I am driving back from up north in the summertime.

  14. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    March 21, 2011 4:59 pm

    The two big soft-serve places in the Saratoga area, both seasonal, are Humpty Dumpty’s and Farmer’s Daughter.

  15. March 21, 2011 6:47 pm

    Kurver Kreme’s soft serve ice cream is not my favorite, but I like that they’re one of the only in the area to do flavors (besides orange creme twist). HOWEVER, I’m a big fan of their homemade soft serve frozen yogurt. I find it to be creamier and all around more delicious than the regular ice cream.

    Guptill’s vanilla yogurt is superior (and, from what I hear, their traditional soft serve is too), but it’s pricier and a bit more out of the way for us.

    I developed a bit of a lactose sensitivity in the past couple of years. Milk and ice cream tend to do a number on my stomach, but I can handle yogurt and cheese (*phew*). In a way, it’s better, as frozen yogurt is the “healthy” option. :)

    I have my favorites up in the GF/Lake George area, but I’m guessing you don’t want to go that far.

    • March 22, 2011 4:03 pm

      On The Farm in latham rotates a flavored/twist soft serve. They don’t have the selection Kurver has, but their flavored soft serve is tasty!

  16. Colleen permalink
    March 21, 2011 7:11 pm

    My vote is for Corner Ice Cream on route 146/Carmen Rd in Guilderland. It has been open for weeks already. Love their soft serve and their prices.

  17. Mike W permalink
    March 21, 2011 9:03 pm

    What happened to the Tour de Fish Fry?! Let’s hope this is in the works as more stands open this summer…

    Regarding the ice cream, I feel as though Kurver should be included despite it’s inferior taste. You have representatives from the surrounding cities and suburbs, but nothing from the city of Albany itself. Though, I’m all for leaving Kurver out in the cold if this means knocking Bumpy’s or Jumpin’ Jacks off the list. My love for Schenectady runs oddly deep.

  18. Mike permalink
    March 23, 2011 1:25 pm

    Leaving Jim’s Tastee Freeze out of this competition would be like holding a “tour de mountain ranges close to the capital region” and then not going to the Adirondacks. It is, quite simply, the best.

  19. rshep permalink
    March 23, 2011 10:42 pm

    Love the idea of a Tour de Soft Serve, but I for one would be FAR more interested in a greater endeavor . . . a Tour de BURGER!!!

  20. Katerbirch permalink
    March 24, 2011 10:02 am

    Oh merde. I so wish I could attend, but alas, I must be a grown up and chaperone a group of students on a trip that day. Bumpy’s is one of my faves!

  21. March 27, 2011 1:22 pm

    I concede your point on comparing likes to likes, but as a passionate consumer of sweets, I prefer to sample the menu items that make a place unique. However, in the name of scientific exploration, I’ll join this tour (assuming the timing works for us.)

  22. StanfordSteph permalink
    March 29, 2011 1:24 am

    I’m in!

    Another vote for On The Farm in Latham. I always enjoyed their soft serve when I lived nearby.

  23. April 5, 2011 10:37 pm

    !! Joy! Definitely tagging along. Is it on for this weekend?

    • April 5, 2011 10:46 pm

      Is this thing on?

      YES! I’m working through the details now, making the difficult decisions, and coming up with the final plan. But it is on, rain or shine. That’s why I made that spiffy little box on the right hand column of the page, and gave it plenty of white space. The post tomorrow morning will lay out what we’ve got in store. Fair warning, it’s going to hurt.

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