For Ice Cream Like No Other, Think Small

By Amanda Abrams
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 3, 2009

Neighborhood ice cream joints are becoming one of Washington's endangered species, thanks to growing numbers of fro-yo shops, the lure of less-pricey premium ice creams from the supermarket and big chains offering complicated flavor combinations made on the spot. But on a hot summer evening, no newfangled treat beats a visit to the local creamery for some chitchat with the server and a cool cone that lasts the walk home. Though they're not always easy to find, the area still has a handful of one-of-a-kind gems treasured by neighbors and offering all-natural house-made ice cream. Here are some highlights.

The Dairy Godmother
2310 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 703-683-7767.

The line is daunting. It snakes through the store past a case of baked goods, past handwritten signs listing the treat of the day, all the way back to the bathrooms. But be prepared: It moves quickly, and you'd better know what you want by the time you get to the front.

Luckily, there are only three flavors to choose from. This is the Dairy Godmother of Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood, a frozen-custard place among locally owned coffee shops and lots of young families. "I thought the area needed a place where you can just run into people," said owner Liz Davis in explaining why she started the business in 2001. Today, the shop is usually full of chatting neighbors enjoying the dense, creamy custard, a frozen dessert that has more egg yolks and less air than regular ice cream. The options on hand are always chocolate and vanilla, plus a daily flavor that might be coconut cream, raspberry chocolate chip or Snickerdoodle Dandy (available only on the Fourth of July).

Frozen Dairy Bar & Boardwalk Pizza
6641 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church. 703-534-4200.

One of the area's longest-running ice cream shops sits in a strip mall at a busy intersection near Seven Corners. The Frozen Dairy Bar occupies roughly the same spot where it was built in 1950, not too long after the state bought the surrounding farmland from the Eiken family to build Route 50.

Back then, it was a free-standing ice cream shack with art deco details that attracted hordes of high-schoolers and neighborhood kids. "We have people who met waiting in line, married and are now in their 60s," says manager Michael Natoli. In the time since, the shop went through three owners, the building was demolished, and the business finally returned to the Eiken family in a new home built on the old site.

It's still selling high-quality custard, churning out chocolate, vanilla and zebra flavors daily, as well as a flavor of the day that might be peanut butter fudge swirl, Black Forest cake or lime in the coconut. And with a nod to the neighborhood's large Asian population, the shop occasionally offers flavors such as taro root and green tea.

Max's Best Homemade Ice Cream
2416 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-333-3111.

If there's a stereotypical image of a neighborhood ice cream joint, it might resemble Max's in Glover Park. The long, narrow store is papered with photos of kids and famous Washingtonians eating ice cream, signs for flavors are hand-drawn, and husband-and-wife owners Max and Marsha Keshani -- the only employees -- know almost everyone who comes in.

And then there's the ice cream itself. Offering almost 30 options daily, the couple rotate through 200 different flavors that include old favorites (English walnut and peppermint stick), upstarts (cookies and cream, cookie dough) and a wide swath of fruit, coffee and chocolate varieties (lemon, peach, mochachino, coffee chip). Asked if he's a perfectionist, Max replies, "Of course," and it shows: The flavors are fresh and strong, the taste is rich and the whipped cream atop a sundae is house-made.

Island Style Ice Cream

3829 34th St., Mount Rainier. 301-927-0066.

As a little girl in Jamaica, Pancita Brydson loved the ice cream her father churned by hand for the neighborhood kids. Decades later, living in the United States, she couldn't find anything that tasted quite as good, so she begged her mother for the old family recipes and began making her own. That's the short story of how Brydson wound up the owner and sole ice cream maker of Island Style Ice Cream, a small shop on funky Mount Rainier's main drag.

From about 20 types of ice cream, customers can choose traditional Jamaican flavors such as grapenut -- vanilla ice cream with Grape-Nuts cereal mixed in is popular in Brydson's homeland -- as well as reggae ginger and ice cream flavored with stout. Other options include Brydson's originals, including the customers' current favorite, Obama Delight (light chocolate with M&Ms).


8030b Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301-588-5656.

Chalk it up to Ice Cream University. That's what got Susan Soorenko started in the business of making and serving cool, creamy delights such as megajolt and cherries with the works. She hadn't actually planned on making her own: The idea was to learn how to import someone else's creations to the Washington area. But after a week-long seminar at New York's Ice Cream University and a study trip to Italy, Soorenko was sold.

That was more than seven years ago. These days, she can be found behind the counter at Moorenko's in downtown Silver Spring, scooping her rich salted caramel, honey lavender and cookie overload. The recession has taken its toll -- the original Moorenko's in McLean closed this past winter -- but the Silver Spring store is still doing well, though Soorenko describes running a small business in this economy as an "extreme sport." Still, she says, the store has a strong connection to its customers. "We've had people come in after funerals and cry in the corner over their milkshakes. It's really specific to a homegrown shop."

Tropical Ice Cream Cafe (formerly York Castle Ice Cream)

9324 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301-589-1616.

Exotic fruit, it turns out, unites the world. That's immediately apparent upon a trip to Tropical Ice Cream, occupying a small strip mall just south of the Beltway. Waiting in a long line for cones of guava, mamey sapote and soursop ice cream, the customers come from all over the globe: El Salvador, Eritrea, China. It makes sense; natives of Asia, Africa and Latin America grew up with juicy treats such as mangoes and jackfruit, and folks from the world's cooler regions itch for the unusual flavors.

Owner Caroline Tay, aims to please, churning ice cream from fruit she ate in her native Ghana as well as litchis and rambutans. Standard American varieties including mint chocolate chip and coffee are available for the less adventurous, but it's flavors such as passionfruit and papaya that make the store a hub for many of the region's immigrants. Waiting for her cone, one Jamaican customer says with a smile, "If you want a flavor that's close to home, this is the place to go."

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