I first heard of Humphry Slocombe when its proscuitto ice cream was highlighted in the “Totally Unexpected” episode of Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”, and since then I’d been dying to make a trip to San Francisco to try it. Some people might have been turned off by the sight of a big pan of pork in the middle of an ice cream shop about to be turned into a sweet frozen dessert, but my reaction was, “Must. Try. This. Now!”
Fast forward several months, and I found myself back in the Bay Area, with a visit to Humphry Slocombe penciled into my schedule. Unfortunately, the day my friends and I went, they were not offering the proscuitto ice cream. I fear this flavor may forever elude us, as another friend had visited a few weeks earlier and reported that it was not being offered that day either. It’s like the so-called red velvet ice cream at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory in New York City. In the TV episode it did look like the owner was making the proscuitto ice cream on special order for another eating establishment that provided the proscuitto, so maybe it’s just not being made anymore… and it’s not on their online menu. What a shame that would be.
Even without the proscuitto ice cream, Humphry Slocombe has no shortage of odd and unique palate-twisting flavors on its menu. Their pride in their unconventional take on ice cream is prominently displayed in some Andy Warhol-esque artwork hanging on the wall as you enter the shop. You think that “Salt and Pepper” and “Hibiscus Beet” flavors are out there? Well, how about “Fetal Kitten” ice cream? If it wasn’t so politically incorrect and so completely unappetizing, I feel like they would actually take on the challenge.
So, how do these quirky flavors actually taste, then? Sure, they can obviously make ice cream out of anything, but does it taste good?
Luckily, I was able to sample plenty of flavors, perhaps to the dismay of the growing line of customers behind me.
Here’s my take on them:
- Secret Breakfast - This is their most popular flavor, a boozy bourbon-flavored ice cream with cornflakes. I liked the added texture of the cornflakes, but for me the ice cream was a little TOO boozy. It was good to sample, but I couldn’t eat a whole cone of it. I was glad to see the incorporation of cornflakes in ice cream, though – the Japanese have been using cornflakes in their ice cream sundaes for years.
- Salt and Pepper - I wouldn’t order a whole scoop of this one, but I will admit I’m impressed at how well this ice cream tastes like salt and pepper. Even though it’s ice cream and it’s sweet, there is no mistaking that this one is salt and pepper. Maybe it could be served in small mini scoops alongside some savory entree.
- Cucumber Ice Milk – I had high hopes for this one, since last year New York City’s Shake Shack had a cucumber frozen custard which I really liked. It makes sense to me – cucumbers are cool and refreshing to begin with – they seem like a natural ingredient for ice cream. But I was sadly disappointed. The texture was off and it was really strong. It made me feel like I was eating a frozen cucumber, which I guess some people would really like, but it was too much for me. I think I could eat more of it if it was paired with something else.
- Chocolate Smoked Salt - This was pretty good – the chocolate base was rich and creamy, with bits of smoked salt studded throughout. I ended up ordering a scoop of this one – it was one of the few flavors I felt I could eat a whole scoop’s worth of. Sometimes when I got a mouthful with a lot of salt, it was TOO salty, but overall I liked the salty accents.
- Hibiscus Beet Sorbet – This one had a strange flavor AND texture. It was very gritty and… maybe for lack of a better word… earthy. It reminded me of a V8 drink in ice form, but not really in a good way.
- Carrot Mango Sorbet – This was surprisingly good. My friend’s brother ordered a sundae with a scoop of this flavor and I snagged a spoonful. It was very fruity and refreshing. I’d probably get this one next time.
- Balsamic Caramel - In theory this should be amazing, but my friend and I both agreed that it was not a winner. The balsamic component was just too overwhelming and acidic. I think Bi-Rite does a better job of incorporating balsamic into their strawberry ice cream.
- McEvoy Olive Oil - Sigh. I really had high hopes for this one, too, since I’ve been slowly discovering olive oil ice cream over the past several months and growing increasingly fond of it. The ones that I’ve had and liked were very delicate with a light citrus note. But this was just overpowering. I guess overpowering might be the word that best describes most of these flavors. The thing is, I’m not even sure exactly what was overpowering – it wasn’t an olive flavor or an olive oil flavor – it just was very strong. I think my family and I might have had this ice cream with dessert at the SF Italian restaurant Flour + Water, and I don’t remember it being so offensive there, so maybe it was an off day.
- Maple Walnut - My friend ordered this one – she decided she wanted a more conventional flavor. After trying all those other wackadoodle flavors, it tasted particularly good.
I didn’t get to try two of the more conventional flavors, Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee, and Tahitian Vanilla, which are also two of the more highly praised flavors. I thought that I should take this opportunity to try the offbeat flavors and see how they stacked up. But if I were to visit again, I’d definitely stick with chocolate, vanilla, coffee, or one of the other more normal-sounding flavors that weren’t in stock that day, like green tea-black sesame (this sounds fantastic!! two of my favorite flavors in one?), milk chocolate passionfruit, candied chestnut (I love chestnut!), and Valrhona Fudgsicle (um… can anyone say YUM?)
There’s no doubt that this place is capable of making really great ice cream, but I think what really attracts crowds is the novelty of the flavors. I’ve never been to a place this bold in their experimentation with different ingredients. Who else is going to make ice cream out of government cheese or foie gras? And what exactly is Jesus Juice? It reminded me of the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor beans from Jelly Belly. It’s fun to try all those flavors you read about in the Harry Potter books, like grass, dirt, sardine, black pepper, vomit (this one is actually disgusting), and booger, but if you are going to shell out 3 dollars for a bag of jelly beans you don’t want to go home with dirt-flavored candy.
I definitely would recommend any adventurous eater make at least one visit to try some of these experimental flavors and challenge their palates. That being said, if you are looking for a consistently delicious scoop of ice cream and want more options, I’d recommend Bi-Rite. After a cursory glance of Yelp reviews, it sounds like most people are ordering the same few flavors, Secret Breakfast, coffee, vanilla, chocolate… While everyone loves sampling the odd flavors, in the end they want something that tastes good.
I’d say that some of these sundaes sound pretty on target. I could go for a “Hot Mess” right now.
If you are into merchandise, there are mugs and t-shirts for your buying pleasure.
They also had some duck fat pecan pies for sale. Yup, offbeat concoctions don’t stop at ice cream at this shop.