There’s a reason customers stand in line for up to an hour at the 5-month-old Salt & Straw ice cream shop in Little Italy.
The store’s $4.90-a-scoop super-premium ice cream is known for its ultra-creamy, high-butterfat content, its small-batch freshness and its all-natural ingredients. But most of all, it’s known for its wildly original flavors, like bone marrow with bourbon-smoked cherries, green apple with wasabi flower sorbet and this spring’s Lots a’ Nacho, made with cheddar cheese ice cream, tomato jam, crushed tortilla chips and avocado fudge.
But what most customers may not know about Salt & Straw is how much the company’s ice creams reflect the five West Coast cities where they’re served. Virtually all of the mix-in ingredients at Salt & Straw are sourced from local artisans in each region.
Since Salt & Straw opened its first local scoop shop in December at 1670 India St., the company has collaborated on flavors with numerous San Diego businesses.
All of the chain’s coffee-flavored ice creams are now made with San Diego’s James Coffee Co.; Modern Times Brewery collaborated on an an orange creamsicle sherbet in January; local chocolatiers Chuao and Nibble were featured in chocolate ice creams and sorbets in February; and Belching Beaver’s stout beer is featured in the new Peanut Butter Stout with Chocolate Chicharrón flavor. In June, a roasted beet and goat cheese ice cream that was co-developed by San Diego chef Brian Malarkey will go on sale.
And just this past week, San Diego’s The Crack Shack restaurants unveiled a pair of gourmet ice cream shakes co-developed by Salt & Straw and Crack Shack’s Culinary Director Jon Sloan. The $7.75 shakes — Salted caramel with biscuit crumble and caramel sauce and Brownie with cookie crumble and fudge — are only served at the Crack Shacks in Little Italy and Encinitas.
Building culinary partnerships in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, L.A. and San Diego is hard work for Salt & Straw co-founder and chief flavor developer Tyler Malek, who leads a five-member research and development crew in sniffing out new tastes in each town.
“We promised ourselves if there’s a harder way to do it, we’ll find it,” he joked, during a phone interview from the company’s headquarters in Portland.
The former Seattle resident gave up his dream of culinary school in 2011 when he got a call from his cousin, Kim Malek, who told him she was planning to open an ice cream food cart on Alberta Street in Portland.
He packed his car the next morning and drove to Portland where they’ve been business partners ever since. After taking a crash course in ice cream-making, they opened their cart and within three months moved into their first brick-and-mortar store. Since then they’ve expanded to 14 locations, with a 15th planned later this year in Anaheim’s Downtown Disney shopping district.
The company’s name is inspired by the way ice cream was made in the old days: churned by hand with rock salt, then packed in insulating layers of straw. While the company still mixes its ice creams by hand in-house in small 5- to 10-gallon batches, it has from the start embraced the new when it comes to flavor.
For consistency, each store always serves 12 classic flavors, including its two top-sellers Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons (Malek’s favorite) and Almond Brittle with Salted Ganache and locally sourced favorites. And five new flavors are featured every month.
In April, the five special flavors were dreamed up by schoolkids in California, Oregon and Washington, including the aforementioned Lots a’ Nacho. This month’s five flavors are infused with spring flowers (like chocolate rose petal and orange blossom sorbet). June’s flavors will all be co-created by West Coast chefs, like Malarkey’s beet concoction.
Malek said opening a shop in San Diego last year was a no-brainer.
“San Diego has the perfect mix of what we look for,” he said. “It has an incredible palate, really strong sense of place and there’s a respect for handmade foods. Look at all the microbreweries and coffee roasters. That’s the canary in the coal mine for a city. San Diego has been top in class for many, many years.”
Their instincts weren’t wrong. The San Diego store had the most successful opening in company history and Malek said he’d love to open a couple more San Diego County stores in the future.
“Our team has been a bit surprised that the people who come into the India Street store have such an adventurous palate,” he said. “There was a perception that because there are so many tourists coming in that we’d need to play it safer from a menu perspective. We didn’t, and it’s gone great.”
Because the flavor combinations are so unusual, San Diego store manager Chelsea Rider said she encourages customers to taste a lot before buying, which is one reason for the long queues. Because so many customers end up torn on their choices, Salt & Straw offers the popular “split scoop” which is two children’s scoops mashed together on a cone for $5.40.
No ice cream makes the cut without Malek’s final approval. His goal is to make every flavor unique and to honor his culinary partners’ dreams for the final product. To get Malarkey’s beet ice cream just right, Malek said they shipped the chef more than 30 test pints over several months.
“We’ve never served anything I didn’t absolutely love but I never wanted it to just reflect my own tastes,” he said. “When someone comes in the scoop shop to taste flavors, they’ll hate some and they’ll love some because there’s so much variety and there are so many voices at work.”
Salt & Straw
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily
Where: 1670 India St., Little Italy
Phone: (619) 542-9394