Just in time for Halloween, who’s got the pumpkin-iest scoops in town? Unlike, say, pumpkin-spice lattes–where the operative word is spice, not pumpkin, as in “the spices, like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, that one would typically use to flavor a pumpkin dessert, rather than the pumpkin itself”–pumpkin ice cream is the real deal, getting its golden, autumnal glow and earthy-sweet seasonal charm from actual pumpkin. Because if you think about it, pureed squash in your coffee, ick, but in your ice cream, oh yes.
Before we tasted it, the frozen-to-order used by Smitten Ice Cream sounded like a high-tech gimmick. Would a sci-fi blast of liquid nitrogen really make better ice cream? But then we strolled down to the shipping-container-turned-sweet-shop in Hayes Valley and ordered up a scoop of Maple Brown Sugar Squash. A hefty spoonful of squash puree, a slug of creamy housemade ice cream base, a sudden burst of chilly, Karl-like fog, and here was our winner, hands down: lusciously smooth, richly flavored but perfectly balanced, like the best pumpkin pie you’ve ever eaten, only better, and glazed with a maple-lemon syrup. But get it now–come November, it will be replaced by Cinnamon Apple Crisp.
Smitten Ice Cream
432 Octavia St, #1A (at Linden St)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Ph: (415) 863-1518
Mon-Thu 12pm – 10 pm
Fri 12pm – 10:30 pm
Sat 11:30am – 10:30pm
Sun 11:30am – 10pm
Facebook: Smitten Ice Cream
Once Smitten’s squash has disappeared for the season, restore your necessary pumpkin joy at Mitchell’s, which offers one of the longest-running Pumpkin ice cream experiences in the city. It’s still the gold standard: creamy and full-flavored, with just the right hint of natural earthy sweetness (and nutmeg). It’s a fall/winter mainstay at this 60-year-old neighborhood hangout, since it’s always warmer (and sunnier) in the Mission, and perfect in a double scoop with their cinnamon-y Mexican Chocolate.
For something a little different, the mid-October arrival of Bi-Rite Creamery’s Pumpkin Soft-Serve (Fridays only, paired with tangy Creme Fraiche) is always cause for seasonal celebration. The soft-serve window (which also sells popsicles, ice-cream sandwiches, cookies, and often, a very delicious hot chocolate) is the best-kept secret of the Bi-Rite universe. There’s almost never a line, even while the queue at the Creamery nearby stretches to new-iPhone-release-day proportions. (The main Creamery is also offering a stellar regular pumpkin ice cream right now.) The texture is just right for Dairy Queen/Foster’s Freeze nostalgia, but the two daily flavors on offer–like peanut butter and roasted banana, salted caramel and coffee, even plain old vanilla and chocolate–are much, much better. According to the staff, customers go nuts for this flavor, calling every day in early October to find out when it will be back on the menu. But familiarity breeds ennui, and sometime in January, it will have slipped away, quietly, until autumn returns some ten months later.
3692 18th St (between Dolores and Guerrero Sts)
San Francisco, CA 94110
Ph: (415) 648-2300
Mon-Fri 3pm – 9 pm
Sat-Sun 1pm – 9 pm
Facebook: Bi-Rite Creamery
The short list of flavors at Elmwood’s pretty little Ici shifts every day, but this month, Pumpkin is the popular kid. Lightly, mildly pumpkin-y, with bright spicing, you can try it in a hand-held gingersnap ice cream sandwich, or pair a scoop with another autumn-toasty flavor, like the brunch-worthy, pancake-ready Maple-Candied Bacon or the potent, nightcap-y Chicory Whiskey. (Note: Ici will be closed on Oct 31.)
2948 College Ave (between Ashby Ave and Russell St)
Berkeley, CA 94705
Ph: (510) 665-6054
Mon-Thu 12pm – 9:30 pm
Fri 12pm – 10 pm
Sat-Sun 11am – 10 pm
Facebook: Ici Ice Cream
But what if it’s chilly and windy outside, and you’d like to sit down and wrap your hands around a steaming mug of coffee while you anticipate your ice cream’s arrival? Whether it’s February or August, April or November, Ginger Cake with Pumpkin Ice Cream is always on the dessert menu at the cozy, tavern-like Chow. But this moist, molasses-y, noir-dark cake and its creamy pumpkin sidekick tastes best when the Halloween pumpkins are glowing. Not close to the Castro? The restaurant has additional locations in Danville, Lafayette, and San Francisco’s Inner Sunset.
Who’s got your favorite pumpkin ice cream? Let us know in the comments!