When I first moved back to LA in late 2016, a friend who lives in Highland Park took it upon herself to extoll the virtues of the city to me in real time. Namely, she got me stoned on colorfully-packaged, commercially-sold joints — still a novelty to me, fresh from New York weed dealers surreptitiously patrolling on bikes — and took me around the neighborhood to feast on the city’s bountiful stoner fare.
We swung by Galco’s Old World Grocery and Soda Pop Stop, the 100-year-old Italian specialty store and deli on York Blvd that basically only sells candy, soda, alcohol, and Italian sandwiches and deserves a whole article unto itself to fully nail the details. Then, to see more of the world, we went by Milkfarm, the woman-owned Eagle Rock cheese and meat shop on Colorado Blvd that was founded by cheese-mongering legend Leah Park Fierro, and stocked up on an imaginable amount of cheese, olives and wine.
Work complete, we headed back to my new home in Silver Lake — but just before turning onto my street, Griffith Park Blvd, another location caught her eye: Magpies Softserve. Despite the decadence that had occurred before, mere proximity was enough to demand we go in — and thus began my introduction and quickly ensuing relationship with my favorite ice cream shop on the planet. Even after a store that sold only sugar and cured meats, and another stuffed to the gills with handmade cheese and cured, pickled, and brined delicacies, there was still something about this lively, off-the-wall soft serve spot that stood out to me from the very beginning.
Living just a block away made the habit an easy one to form, but the product that founders Rose and Warren Schwartz are peddling is habit-forming for plenty of reasons beyond vicinity. Growing up in small town Oregon, where Dairy Queen rules the world when it comes to soft serve, my taste for the creamier, more accessible sweet stuff had already been well established. But unlike the chemical-laden ice cream at the more corporate chains like DQ, Magpies’ ice cream is totally devoid of powders and mixes. Instead, the Schwartzes create every recipe from scratch, and even make plenty of their own ingredients in-house. The taste is so much fresher and sharper than any other ice cream I’ve had, and more creative, too.
The couple owners are both chefs — Rose a pastry chef and Warren a longtime fixture at places like Westside Tavern, the now-shuttered Warren’s Blackboard and the food app startup Munchery — and dreamed up the idea while eating DQ ice cream during a fateful vacation in the desert. Dairy Queen, but make it chef-y. What could be better? What indeed! Since opening their flagship Silver Lake location down the block from my first LA apartment in June 2016, they’ve opened a second location in Tarzana in 2017, and have an enormous new spot in Highland Park in the works for 2020. Or, at least they did until the world turned upside down — jury’s out on any new ice cream shops opening during a world in lockdown.
Yet, the shops that were already setup and equipped to serve the world this inventive, largely vegan offerings are still selling it by the pint, cup, and cone during the pandemic. Because how the hell else are we supposed to deal with the daily anxiety of staying inside, the intensity of global grief, and the fear for our loved ones, our economic stability, and our own mental and physical health…. without ice cream? It’s a blessing and a joy to come to the end of my rope during a hot afternoon or a gloomy evening, and realize there’s a local business just down the street I can go support, and get something sweet and homemade. It might be stupid, and it might be a small thing, but it’s how I’m getting by, and it’s a semblance of normalcy I can hold on to.
There are other flavors, but it’s only been once or twice I’ve managed to pull myself away from the shop’s best, most important ice cream variety: Sweet Cream. It’s better than vanilla would ever dream of being, and thankfully, not really vanilla-y at all, but it is plain and sweet and milky like that flavor can be at its best. There’s a tiny hint of salty mixed in with the sweet, but not enough to feel suspicious or overpowering, and the flavor is so pure it stands alone and requires no toppings.
However, if you’re jonesing to try the homemade, inventive toppings, start with the chocolate covered honeycomb, which has been ossified or crunchified in some way so that it hits like a cookie crunch — not gooey like we normally conceive honeycomb would be (this is a vegan approximation, not real honeycomb by the way). This is the best combo on the menu for my money, no cone needed. The soft serve starts at $5.50, with toppings at an extra $0.75 a pop, so yes, it’s a little more expensive than DQ — that’s because the ingredients are homemade.
Branching out, grab a pint of Corn Almond (all pints $8.95) for the Los Angeles take on Cereal Milk flavor, a nice mix of grain and carbohydrates-y notes that are, eventually, submerged back into the idea of sweetened milk. Best of all, this flavor is vegan, though you’d never guess it for a minute. There’s no strange aftertaste, no try-hard semblance like so much vegan-milk-ephemera, and best of all, there’s not a hint of separation between the dairy and vegan flavors. About half the menu is vegan, and a lot of it is gluten-free, giving allergy-laden Angelenos a welcome respite without sacrificing any flavor.
The couple are always experimenting with new flavors and coming up with novelties daily, but the core menu is pretty set during quarantine: the aforementioned Sweet Cream and Corn Almon, Malted Milk Chocolate (bomb), Peanut Butter Banana (vegan), Horchata (vegan), Thai Iced Tea (vegan), Ube Coconut (vegan) and Mexican Hot Chocolate (vegan). That’s a whole lot of oat milk options, and all of them rise to the occasion. By the way, if you like to eat ice cream in slices, with lots of toppings mixed in, they also make soft serve pies available for takeout, or just a slice to have on your own. Truly, a decadent and creative cherry on top.
But if you’re just starting out, grab a soft serve portion of Sweet Cream with chocolate honeycomb — a pint of Sweet Cream for when you’re craving it again later. Then, get a pint of Corn Almond for your vegan friend’s birthday, and make yourself indispensable in no time. There’s simply no better ice cream spot in Los Angeles, and as the days begin to slide toward roasting, it’s our duty to keep this local shop in business. And if anyone wants to spark up and blow a whole paycheck (as if I still have one) at Galco’s and Milkfarm too, I’m down.