In the ever-rising tide of small-batch, high-concept, dizzyingly-quirky ice cream shops sweeping the US, Portland’s Salt & Straw remains a unique standout. Besides the memorable, rich, lushness of their ice cream, their distinguishing trademark is their “farm-to-cone” philosophy, honed to perfectly capture the ethos of Portland’s dynamic food scene. Peach with Toasted Walnuts, Apricots and Citra Hops, Stumptown Coffee and Burnside Bourbon—the list of flavors evokes a idealized bicycle trip through the very best of Portland’s farmers’ markets, coffee shops, and bars. One where you come away convinced that you’ve never tasted a sweeter apricot, or sparked with wonder at an entire block of distillers handcrafting their own spirits. Given how Salt & Straw has come to epitomize Portland in a waffle cone, is it surprising that they’ve found a kindred spirit in Los Angeles, whose endless sunshine and swaying palm trees seem the polar opposite of the fog-shrouded, forested reaches of Oregon?
Salt & Straw is the creation of cousins Kim and Tyler Malek: she oversees operations, while Tyler dreams up flavors outré yet enticing in the kitchen. In speaking to Tyler about how he comes up with his ideas, it’s clear that his collaborators are his inspiration. For Salt & Straw, it’s not as simple as mixing some local berries or chocolate into an ice cream; they take the time to foster a relationship with their fellow food artisans, growers, and producers, understand what makes their product special, and then actively collaborate on a flavor that captures the essence of the item. Every single flavor on their menu board has a story behind it.
The classic favorite Freckled Woodblock Chocolate perfectly encapsulates the successful feedback loop created by this synergy. The unassuming, pale cocoa-colored ice cream is flecked, or more accurately, freckled with chocolate from Woodblock Chocolate, Portland’s first bean-to-bar chocolate maker. Chocolate maker Charley Wheelock roasts cacao beans in an antique coffee roaster, which inspired Tyler to research the old-fashioned ice cream technique of freckling. To freckle ice cream, melted chocolate is poured into the ice cream machine while the ice cream is still churning. The chocolate breaks into tiny bits, or “freckles,” that distribute throughout the ice cream. Because the chocolate is melted, it stays soft in the ice cream, resulting in a different taste and texture experience than chocolate chips or chunks.
This delicate, slightly malty ice cream is still on the menu board, and its soaring popularity mirrors, not coincidentally, a corresponding rise in Woodblock Chocolate’s star. These parallel successes illustrates Kim’s belief that “all ships rise”: in pursuing their goal of capturing Portland’s food scene in an ice cream cone, they’ve also brought many small food growers and makers into the spotlight as well.
Having tied themselves so intimately to Portland, the next challenge for the Maleks was to capture the food zeitgeist of a completely new location. A successful experimental run at artisan food mecca Joan’s on Third and a meeting/culinary jam session with West Hollywood chef Michael Voltaggio convinced them that Los Angeles was the place. Tyler credits Voltaggio, whose passion for out-of-the-box creativity matches his, with opening the door to the burgeoning community of small farmers and food makers in southern California. Within the last year, Tyler built up a network of local growers, chefs, and producers similar to the one he’s established in Portland, filled with people whose products inspire him and who in turn are inspired by an ice cream maker looking to immortalize their product in ice cream. Some of these collaborators starring in the opening menu of the LA shop include: Brentwood chocolatier Jonathan Graham and his signature Love Nuts (the ice cream not only features these chocolate-dipped pecans but slices of chocolate embedded throughout to mirror the fourteen-layer enrobing process for the nuts); Costa Mesa’s Sidecar Donuts (pieces of their Butter & Salt donuts are toasted and mixed into the ice cream); and Greenbar Distillery (Tyler mentions their Grand Poppy liqueur as one of his favorite discoveries).
Salt & Straw seem to have translated LA’s food scene into their language of milk, cream, and sugar without breaking stride, even embracing such nuances like the extended growing season Southern California enjoys compared to Portland. Take their tomato water and olive oil sherbet, a pale pink ode to summer that was first conceived in conjunction with Portland’s Zenger Farms. However, tomato season in Portland runs a scant handful of months, from late July to early September, making the sherbet a summertime limited edition. Once Kim and Tyler started touring the farms of southern California, they were astonished by the near-endless bounty of tomatoes. The LA edition of this sherbet will therefore linger on the menu for longer than its northern counterpart—lucky for LA residents—and actually is one of the centerpiece flavors of their opening menu. However, the increased accessibility to raw product doesn’t mean that Tyler’s creative engine will slow down one whit: he is particularly looking forward to creating his November collection, which centers around comfort and Thanksgiving, and is, he admits, one of his favorite menus of the year.
On opening day at the new Salt & Straw shop in Larchmont Village, Kim and Tyler were surprised to find many of the eager customers had already made the pilgrimage to their Portland shops, and were waiting to welcome them to SoCal with open arms. While they’ve been working to spin a sweet ode to their new second home, it looks like many of the natives have already been won over—and the rest surely won’t be far behind.
Salt & Straw
Los Angeles, CA:
240 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles, CA
3345 SE Division St., Portland, OR
2035 NE Alberta St., Portland, OR
838 NW 23rd Ave., Portland, OR