When I was asked to do a deep dive into the Triangle’s ice-cream scene, it was like Christmas in July. Who wouldn’t want to (figuratively) bathe in oceans of frozen treats when it’s 90 degrees outside? Oh, jokes were made. “Taking one for the team,” I might have said, or, “It’s a tough job.” But inside, believe me, I was screaming for ice cream.
Is there, you might ask, a need for yet another ice cream directory?
Well, every summer, the Triangle’s inventive ice-cream scene evolves just a little bit, whether by a new shop, scoop, or flavor. To keep pace, accompanied by a good friend and my 20-something child, I embarked on a trek through the Triangle, thoroughly examining nine local independent purveyors of frozen treats.
We were thrilled to discover that each location did something—sometimes more than one something—better than anybody. The INDY’s reader-voted Best Of picks for ice cream and everything else dropped last week, but this week, we’re pleased to give you a further scoop on the many ice cream dreams our area has to offer.
Best working dairy/ice cream stand
The drive through the countryside reminds us of the Sunday drives of our childhoods, with quaint homes and plenty of horses.
But rather than a destination of mind-numbing boredom and depressing pre-cable Sunday night TV, the reward is a house on a rise that exists solely to serve up ice cream treats in multiple flavors, including a famous nod to UNC: Carolina crunch, a delicious concoction of caramel ice cream, Butterfinger, and Heath Bar Pieces.
Best ice cream worth the brain freeze
This dreamy farm looks like something between something out a Monet painting, and something from an Edgar Allen Poe poem. There’s a farm stand with picturesque, brightly colored vegetables and a cooler full of cheeses from Cedar Grove boutique cheesemaker, Boxcarr Handmade Cheese. An adjacent barn is charmingly decorated with animal skulls.
The Broken Spoke folks make soft-serve ice cream from their own recipes—no easy feat, as any ice cream expert will tell you. The day we visited, the two flavors on tap were blackberry and chocolate. The chocolate was a frosty chocolate punch in the face. It was impossible to stop the journey of spoon to gob, which resulted in an ice cream headache—though that didn’t slow the cocoa motion. The blackberry flavor, meanwhile, was bright, fruity, and delicious.
Best place in Chapel Hill to take visitors for frosty treats
Situated in the heart of Franklin Street, this Chapel Hill institution is tucked into an alley next to yet another institution—semi-historic bar He’s Not Here.
Known locally as “Yo Po,” it’s the only froyo joint on this list. It’s a place where first-timers are treated like regulars. Its frozen yogurt is scrumptious and the chocolate is the most deeply flavored, creamiest chocolate frozen yogurt that will likely ever come near your mouth.
Most original ice-cream eatery with a dash of humor
Nathan and Audrey Simons are known at local farmers’ markets for their silky, delicious nut butters. Their new venture, opened in downtown Durham in May, takes traditional dip-top cones from our childhoods, and ups the ante.
The ice cream is rich, thick egg custard, a preparation well-known in the Midwest but unfamiliar to many North Carolinians. Ice cream is then dipped in one of two dozen Belgian chocolate-based dips with flavors like caramel, pistachio, and key lime, and then rolled in a variety of toppings, with 18 to choose from.
The result is a towering, gorgeous jewel-toned candy land treat that makes Willie Wonka look monotone and unimaginative.
Most unusual delivery device—and the best way to eat your (purple) sweet potatoes
This Brightleaf Square ice creamery serves a combination of purchased and house-made flavors. The Sugar Koi-made treats are inspired by owner Nat Jira’s time growing up in Thailand and include brightly colored varieties like Thai tea, matcha, and ube, which are purple sweet potatoes from the Philippines.
But the eponymous koi is not just a cute moniker. The ice cream is served in cups, waffle cones, and bowls, or cheeky, cartoon-dimensioned, fish-shaped cones. The sight of a crispy, golden-brown fish diving into a mound of whipped cream is oddly charming and not one you’ll soon forget.
Bonus: Sugar Koi will soon be Brightleaf Square neighbors with an outpost of the cult ice-cream chain, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream.
Best Bull City ice cream place to impress visitors
The Parlour started as a food truck in Durham, in 2011, staking out space in a school bus. In 2013, it moved into a brick-and-mortar spot at CCB Plaza. Located within view of Durham’s Major the bronze bull, the Parlour is known for scrumptious handmade ice cream in gourmet, seasonal flavors. It was one of the first places to serve a now-famous salted butter caramel, and also dish out a coffee ice cream that will make you say, “Starbucks who?”
Best ice cream flavors you didn’t even know existed
Tucked into a strip mall in Cary is a museum of sweet and savory Mexican street foods. We began our tour with elote cups—Dixie cups full of corn, chili-lime seasoning, and topped with mounds of cotija cheese. Then, the ice cream.
Pine nut: who knew? The Barbie-pink ice cream is studded with toasted piñones which are somehow both creamy and crunchy.
It’s slighty nutty with a finish like butter pecan. Then, onto blackberry cheese—an item you might assume is a blackberry cheesecake; at first, we did, too. But we were wrong. The color of this frozen treat is a whiter shade of pale with lavender streaks that look tie-dyed in. The cheese in the name is a mild farmer’s type of cheese, and it comes together on one’s tongue with a flavor like a lightly sweet, frozen cheese plate.
Ice cream that most tastes like it was churned on Grandma’s back porch
Made of local milk from free-range cows, ice cream of every flavor is creamy and fresh tasting. The midnight brownie crunch and brownie sundaes use chewy, moist, fresh-baked brownies baked by members of Life Experiences, Inc., a non-profit organization for adults with developmental disabilities.
But the big story is their Madagascar vanilla ice cream. It tastes like vanilla did when you were a child, and weren’t yet aware that “vanilla” can often be used as a synonym for boring. It tastes like Grandma churned it—if your grandmother were an ice cream goddess. It transforms “vanilla” into a compliment.
Best ice cream place in Raleigh to take out-of-towners—plus, the topping we wish we’d been eating on everything our entire lives
Located on N.C. State’s visually stunning dairy farm, this ice creamery does not apologize for being a celebration of cows and the milk they produce. Their graham cracker ice cream is unique. And delicious. And unique. And crazy delicious. The fluffy sugar sundae is made with a revelatory lemon ice cream and topped with marshmallow cream, which is pretty great. But then they torch it. TORCH IT! And we’ll end here, so that you may contemplate that.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.