Here’s the scoop: All frozen treats are not created equal. While the creamy vanilla-and-chocolate swirls of your youth may seem the same as that serving of rocky road, they go by different names. To be considered ice cream, the dessert has to have at least 10 percent milkfat. Soft serve, on the other hand, contains anywhere from 3 to 6 percent milkfat and the treat is generally churned, then infused with more air during the freezing process to give it that fluffy and, well, softer texture. Toast the classic American dessert by giving one of these spots a swirl.
1. SWEET ROSE CREAMERY // SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA
Small batches of soft serve are hand-crafted daily in the Sweet Rose Creamery kitchen location in Santa Monica, using organic milk, cream, and eggs from local farms as well as produce scooped up at a nearby farmers market. The menu features classics like vanilla bean and dark chocolate, in addition to rotating seasonal flavors like brown sugar, lime, and gingerbread.
2. CLIFF'S HOMEMADE ICE CREAM // LEDGEWOOD, NEW JERSEY
Founded in 1975 by ice cream salesman and high school teacher Cliff Freund, this neighborhood institution has remained mainly unchanged over its four-plus decades. Sweets lovers walk up to the stand, choose from 11 soft serve flavors (including the award-winning vanilla and strawberry) or 60 hand-dipped varieties, then enjoy their treats at the picnic table.
3. BIG GAY ICE CREAM // NEW YORK & PHILADELPHIA
The perennial favorite started as “a lark” admits co-owner Doug Quint when he decided to drive an ice cream truck around NYC in 2009. Now, the brand has three locations (in New York and Philadelphia) offering creatively named menu items such as the Bea Arthur (vanilla ice cream infused with dulce de leche and dunked in crushed Nilla wafers). Jokes Quint of their famed vanilla, sea salt, dulce de leche, and chocolate creation, “I’m still sort of shocked when I eat a Salty Pimp.”
5. COW TIPPING CREAMERY // TEXAS
Dessert lovers order “stackers” at this southern spot (located in Dallas and Austin)—sundaes that alternate layers of creamy soft serve with toppings (anything from Nutter Butter crumbs to caramelized bananas) and baked goods. One to try: the Southern Charm, with "rummy caramel sauce, honey-dusted pecans, and southern cracker candy."
5. HOT CAKES MOLTEN CHOCOLATE CAKERY // SEATTLE, WASHINGTON
When chocolatier Autumn Martin first invested in a soft serve machine for her second shop—in the city’s Capitol Hill area—the aim was to make it easier on staff to blend the signature milkshakes. But it also gave Martin an excuse to create her own hardened chocolate “magic shell” for the vanilla-only dessert. Her iteration, a smoky chocolate, is “reminiscent of childhood summers,” raves Seattle Magazine, “but with a grown-up, campfire-y twist.”
6. MAGPIES SOFTSERVE // SILVER LAKE, CALIFORNIA
A visit to a Palm Desert ice cream chain inspired husband-and-wife duo Rose and Warren Schwartz to create what they called a “chef-y Dairy Queen.” Together at Magpies Soft Serve, they blend inventive flavors in-house such as vegan Horchata and peanuts & Cracker Jack.
7. PIED PIPER CREAMERY // NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE
Punny names (Think: Baby Got Baklava, a blend of honey cinnamon custard, toasted walnuts and phyllo crust, and the gin and juice sorbet Snoop Dizzle Sorbizzle) are on offer at this homey shop in East Nashville. Their cereal-infused delicacies are also a standout. The four “Cereal Killer” blends include mixes with Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Fruity Pebbles, Froot Loops, and Cap’n Crunch.
8. BOILER ROOM // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
This Logan Square pizza joint’s take on the childhood treat is decidedly adult. Booze-laced options on the menu include a flavor spiked with Jameson whiskey. Others are laced with cream liqueur.
9. TWIRL AND DIP // SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
This Northern California food truck is named for its signature vanilla-chocolate twirl. But their take on the classic is anything but basic: organic vanilla bean and dark chocolate is swirled into a hand-rolled sugar cone, then dunked in dark cocoa from local chocolatier Tcho. (The sprinkle of sea salt? Optional.) For those looking for less traditional treats, there are seasonal flavors such as mango, fresh ginger, and nutmeg offered from the food truck as well as the recently opened brick-and-mortar shop.
10. GENERAL TSO'BOY // AUSTIN, TEXAS
Marketed as “the perfect marriage” of American Chinese food and Louisiana Po’boys, this Texas sandwich shop carries its East-meets-West style to dessert. Their rotating menu is comprised of offerings like granola yogurt, milk black tea, and toasted bread, topped with crumbled and caramelized toast pieces.
11. SOFT SWERVE // NEW YORK CITY
Since its 2016 opening, this spot became an Instagram darling, thanks to its jet-black chocolate and red cinnamon cones filled with brightly hued soft serve available in ube purple yam, matcha green tea, macapuno coconut and black sesame. Another hit: their menu of specials named for local city spots, including the matcha, crushed Oreos, and chocolate drizzle Mott and Mulberry, a tribute to the Chinatown neighborhood where owners Michael Tsang and Jason Liu were both raised. “Coming up with the menu, we started thinking about how we came up with the inspiration for the ice cream and our roots in the neighborhood,” Tsang explained to DNA New York in 2016.
12. CEDAR HILL DAIRY JOY // WESTON, MASSACHUSETTS
Open every season from May through November, the family-run roadside attraction has been serving up made-from-scratch soft serve (and fried seafood!) for 57 years. Fresh fruit purees are the key ingredients in the homemade blends, including the beloved JavaBerry, a raspberry-and-coffee mix that was originally blended by accident, according to Eater.
13. GANNONS ISLE ICE CREAM // SYRACUSE, NEW YORK
In honor of its basketball town roots (the three locations are located within miles of Syracuse University), this family-run operation holds a March Madness-style Midsummer Classic each August. The top 32 selling flavors from the previous year (options include an orange sherbet and black raspberry twist and a vanilla and chocolate Dole Whip) are put in a bracket to see which variation will be crowned “Chillin’ Champion.”
14. SALT & STRAW’S WIZ BANG BAR // PORTLAND, OREGON
After getting your fill of Choco Tacolates (taco-shaped waffle cones stuffed with Mexican vanilla ice cream and ancho chile and coated in chocolate) at this Portland eatery, choose from five soft serve flavors. Sweet pea and fresh mint or cucumber fro-yo are some of the more inventive options on offer, but traditionalists can stick to the vanilla custard or chocolate fudge.
15. DETROIT WATER ICE FACTORY // DETROIT, MICHIGAN
At Detroit Water Ice Factory, the chocolate and vanilla soft serve sandwiches include your choice of fat- and cholesterol-free water ice (load up on flavors like Swedish Fish, root beer, and salted margarita) and come with a side of largesse. All profits from the downtown Detroit location—founded by newspaper columnist and author Mitch Albom—go to the city’s neediest citizens.
16. FRANK'S HICKORY HOUSE BBQ // CLINTON, ARKANSAS
Come to this barbecue joint for the ribs and chicken, but be sure to stay for dessert. Sugar seekers can finish up their dish with the paw cone (six layers of vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, caramel or butterscotch ice cream) or, for the more adventurous, the Dang Revenoor. At nearly 12 inches, the spiral clocks in as the state’s tallest soft serve tower.
17. CHEESE & CRACK SNACK SHOP // PORTLAND, OREGON
While the signature fromage-and-cured meat boxes are the stars at this tiny café that started as a neighborhood cheese stand on wheels, the $3 vanilla soft serve (topped with chocolate ganache and espresso dust) has customers raving.
18. MORSE FARM MAPLE SUGARWORKS // MONTPELIER, VERMONT
The maple creemee—Vermont’s take on ice cream—is a mix of soft serve and maple syrup. And Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks, the state’s oldest maple farm and sugaring plant, is said to dish it out best, thanks to their additive-, preservative-, and artificial sweetener-free 100 percent pure syrup.
19. PUTZ'S CREAMY WHIP // CINCINNATI, OHIO
Taking a cue from Vermont, Ohio has their own name for soft serve: the creamy whip. And Ohioans rank the blend at this walk-up stand, which serves up flavors like Peanut Butter and Fizzy Cotton Candy, among the top. In business since 1938, when Anna and Constantine Putz sold cones out of a pair of trolley cars, the shop has a storied history. When a planned expressway construction threatened to close the location, owner Lil Ehrhardt penned a letter to then-President Richard Nixon asking him to alter plans. Her plea worked. Six weeks after she sent the note, she received word from the U.S. Department of Transportation that the roadway could be shifted back nine feet.
20. BI-RITE CREAMERY & BAKESHOP // SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
The flavors change daily at this eatery in San Francisco’s historic Mission District — salted caramel, balsamic strawberry, and coconut feature regularly — but the formula stays the same. The creamery crafts their blend with buffalo milk from nearby Double 8 Dairy, a technique that gives the treat a creamier consistency and smoother texture.