Inside Scoop

A Closer Look At the Current Crop Of Creameries

By Rebecca Cook

IF TUCSON'S YEARLY per capita consumption of ice cream were plotted on a chart, there'd no doubt be a sharp spike during the summer months.

Popular as a dessert all year round, ice cream takes on a quality of pure salvation once the temperature creeps beyond the century mark. Observe the children in your neighborhood flocking toward the chiming ice-cream truck trundling up the street; note the around-the-clock flow of human traffic into any of a number of local ice-cream parlors.

Chow When the heat's on, it seems we all scream for ice cream.

There was a time when our options for satisfying the craving for creamy coolness were limited to a few establishments in town offering shakes, cones and hot-fudge sundaes.

Today, we're privileged choose from a plethora of ice-cream vendors, making it likely that no matter where you are at any moment of the day, you're within striking distance of icy, sweet relief. Here's the inside scoop on where to find the parlor that best suits you:

Austin's, 2920 E. Broadway. (327-3892): "Famous since 1959" proclaims the sign at this midtown restaurant. The year mentioned, however, refers only to the opening of the Tucson operation--in Watertown, N.Y., the Austin family began tinkering in the ice-cream business as early as the 1920s.

Many of the recipes used in those days of Prohibition are still utilized at Austin's today. Flavors to check out include English toffee, burgundy-cherry, ginger and root beer. The milkshakes are legendary and the hot-fudge topping sweet, gooey and darkly delicious.

Cold Stone Creamery, Inc., with locations at 1927 E. Speedway (795-7576); and 7090 N. Oracle Road (297-6522): Remember going to a picnic or backyard social gathering where the concluding glory of the meal was hand-churned ice cream? The critical question during the interminable grinding period was who would get to lick the dasher, the machine's beater, which was luxuriously coated with soft, creamy ice cream.

Welcome to the world of Cold Stone Creamery, which capitalizes on this coveted memory by producing ice cream that's hand-mixed before your very eyes on an iced marble slab. Various ingredients--anything from chocolate sprinkles and crushed candy bars to seasonal fresh fruit--can be mixed into a generous heaping of your flavor of choice. The end result is scooped into a cup or a variety of cone concoctions. (My personal favorite is the sinfully indulgent chocolate-dipped waffle variety.)

Amazingly, even Cold Stone's nonfat frozen-yogurt treats set new standards of rich and creamy, defying the typical "it's okay" response that many other health-conscious desserts engender.

A similarly themed establishment is The Marble Slab Creamery, in the Crossroads Festival center, 4811 E. Grant Road (327-8006). With their slogan, "Just out of the churn," Marble Slab also does a good job of evoking a time when ice cream couldn't be conveniently bought in a store, but had to be made by hand at home.

Walk through the doors at the Slab and the just-out-of-the-oven aroma of fresh-baked cones assails the senses. Now that they have your attention, check out the myriad choices safely behind glass. To make this onerous decision-making easier, the establishment offers several pre-named options: How about the Chocolate Thunder, a combination of double-dark ice cream, chocolate chips, crumbled fudge brownies and fudge sauce? Or choose from concoctions named after the staff. (The Lora, made with vanilla cinnamon ice cream, graham cracker crumbs and chocolate chips, is particularly tasty.)

Swensen's Ice-Cream Factory, with locations at Park Mall, 5900 E. Broadway (748-0555); and 6444 N. Oracle Road (297-9974): Like many ice-cream parlors, Swensen's hearkens to another era, where the preferred mode of cross-country transportation was the Iron Horse.

Children delight as much from the trains that rev around the ceiling track as they do the hand-packed ice cream. If you're really hungry, or have a loved one to share with, the sundaes here are tough to beat. I'm especially fond of the Black Bart, a luscious mess of chocolate ice cream topped with gooey marshmallow, fudge sauce, whipped cream, chopped nuts and, of course, a Maraschino cherry.

Eric's Fine Foods & Ice Cream, 1702 E. Speedway (795-2280), has been a favorite among UA students for years. Also a featured dessert in many restaurants around town, Eric's ice cream has always been singular for its bold flavor and subtle innovation. (I recall a Mexican chocolate I sampled once that was divine--dark, rich chocolate permeated with the barest hint of cinnamon. The Aztecs would've swooned).

I wanted to revisit Eric's, but seemed to consistently find the place closed, with no sign on the window to indicate hours of operation. Hopefully they just cut back for the summer months, and will be in full swing in a couple of weeks when school is back in session.

A viable alternative to any of these local specialty ice-cream stores are the stalwart standbys: the multitude of Baskin-Robbins and Dairy Queens sprinkled all over town.

Baskin-Robbins' 31-plus flavors offer a taste for every mood, and their ubiquitous Cappuccino Blasts (a deluxe coffee milkshake) are an especially refreshing way to beat a mid-afternoon summertime slump. Dairy Queen's soft ice-cream, peaked into a standard cake cone, is still a treat on a hot day. The Blizzard, a cross between a new ice cream flavor and a milkshake, consists of vanilla ice-cream mixed with your choice of crushed candy or Oreo cookie crumbs. The Butterfinger Blizzard is particularly sublime.

There's no question that the summers here in Tucson can be brutal. You just need to know how to cope. Ice cream helps. TW

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