The Best Soft Serve East of the River
This year’s soft serve tour was supposed to take an intrepid group of eaters to Schenectady in order to sample the Electric City’s classic seasonal swirls. But a freak fire ruined not just our plans, but seriously put the dent into a much-beloved local business.
While the initial reports suggested that Dairy Circus would rebuild, more recent stories have indicated the opposite. So I’m bummed that I never had a chance to go.
However, a fire isn’t going to stop the Fussy Little Tour. It might slow us down. But there were still plenty of soft serve places to explore, so we set our sights on the other side of the region. Then on Saturday, July 9, several brave souls set out on an epic journey. Together we would eat at five different beloved soft serve stands, mostly east of the Hudson, looking for the very best.
Some of these eaters were veterans. Others were virgins. But all of us were guided by the same scoresheets that served the Fussy Little Tours so well in the years before.
So how did it all work out? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Fifteen of us set off on Saturday afternoon, but only thirteen were able to see it through. And that’s okay. These tours are harder than they sound.
For the first year ever, I decided to go for toppings. That decision was based on some learnings after last year’s tour of Saratoga County. Because the truth of the matter is, I just don’t like soft serve very much on its own. It’s true. But still, I do these tours for science. My hope was that by adding nuts to my soft serve, I might be able to appreciate it better.
There were a few other interesting toppings being evaluated this tour. There was hot fudge, peanut butter, caramel, sprinkles, and cookie dough. And Chantelle was looking for a great creamsicle swirl.
Mac’s Drive-In was our first stop, and our only destination west of the Hudson River. Still, this Watervliet institution always gets mentioned in the same breath as the Snowman and other Rensselaer County ice cream stands.
At Mac’s Drive-In the kid’s size was around five ounces without toppings, for two bucks. Fifty cents added another one to two ounces of toppings, depending on what was selected. The nuts were powdery dregs of peanuts, but Ranky K. admired the “Delicious PB!” and Mrs. Jon In Albany’s caramel topping was “soft + smooth, sweet, and very good.”
All in all, Mac’s average score betrays the fact of just how good this little place actually is. Mac’s does it all, from solid soft serve to homemade hard ice cream. It’s in a dead heat for second place on the best value scale. Mac’s was also one of the two better places for a creamsicle swirl on this outing.
Then it was off to Lickety Split in East Greenbush which is right in front of the Funplex Fun Park.
Wow. Just wow. Soft serve is all about value, which is one of the reasons why the stands provide such outlandish servings. But nothing prepared us for what we would receive at this stop. A kid-sized cup without toppings weighed in at eight ounces, and cost a paltry ninety-five cents. One topping will push up the price to $1.22 but even that is shockingly cheap, especially considering they use premium toppings like walnuts instead of peanuts.
But cheap food isn’t a value unless it’s actually good. Part of me wondered whether at prices this low this soft serve could even be considered food. However, Lickety Split also won the day for its chocolate flavor, and overall texture. Perhaps that’s because, as Royal Urson, noted, the chocolate had more of a chocolate syrup flavor than that of cocoa powder. And even though Chantelle wasn’t crazy about the vanilla flavor, she was impressed with its density and “really satisfying mouthfeel.”
Jack C. and Lauren noted that Lickety Split also employed a great technique for applying hot fudge so that the soft serve wouldn’t turn into a pool of goo. The peanut butter topping was also tops, as were the cookie dough and rainbow sprinkles.
You might think it would be hard to screw up rainbow sprinkles. Hold that thought.
How could we say no to a stop at The Big Dipper? The roadside stand had a strong appeal just based on its name alone. And when we got there, I was glad to find it had an inside area, because at this point the sky was looking rather threatening. Fortunately, we didn’t need shelter.
Our group gathered around one of the picnic tables and ate some fairly average soft serve that was cold and sweet, but lacking discernible flavors.
Kid’s portions were $2 regardless of toppings. The weights varied a bit, but it looks like they are shooting for a four ounce serving without toppings. The cookie dough topping was highly praised by Jessica for being “real cookie dough” instead of those more common industrial cookie dough nuggets. But skip the hot fudge, which wasn’t hot and overwhelmed the soft serve below.
Stop number four was the Snowman, which was the favorite going into this contest. And it was marked as the best spot on the tour by just about a quarter of the completed ballots. That’s good enough to give the beloved Troy shop a respectable second place.
Snowman did so well based on the strength of its vanilla, which got the highest scores on the tour, and its texture, which tied for first. A kid’s cup of the stuff without toppings is a mere $1.50. My nuts added just a quarter to the price.
The toppings were uneven. The hot fudge and cookie dough got high praise. But Mrs. Jon found the caramel to be too sweet and lacking any depth, and my chopped peanuts tasted stale.
It would seem like the big winner here is the orange vanilla twist. Chantelle wrote:
This combination was dense, the vanilla actually tasted like vanilla, the orange was refreshing and crisp on the tongue. The orange flavor did not end up indistinguishable from the vanilla and held up well. A lot of the ice creams had a waxy texture that left residue on the tongue, but Snowman did not.
Our last stop was Chrissy’s Cravings in Schaghticoke. And even though we didn’t need to go under its pagoda for shelter, it was comforting to know it was there.
Remember how I said that it was hard to screw up rainbow sprinkles? Well, somehow when we visited, Chrissy’s had run out of this classic topping. The cookie dough topping here was also the worst of the day, based on its “waxy taste.” The caramel topping tasted like butterscotch. And the nuts were both powdery and sparsely applied.
But it wasn’t all bad. There’s good value here with a four ounce kid’s cup costing $1.50 without toppings. Jon In Albany complemented its texture, and Randy K. would come back simply for the nice drive and this soft serve stand’s playground.
Whew. That was a lot of soft serve. Thank you to everyone who came out and lent their bodies to science in the pursuit of helping others find the best soft serve in the Capital Region this summer and beyond.
And congratulations to Lickety Split and the Snowman. You’ll be seeing more of the Fussies in the future.