If you grew up in this country sometime during the last forty years, odds are you have a childhood memory of eating Chinese food. But the Chinese food we consumed (most likely Cantonese) probably was more Americanized than we realized – egg fu young, pupu platters, and chow mein. And at the end of those meals, I always (if my parents allowed) ordered dessert.
But I was constantly disappointed when the only sweets on offer (aside from an orange wedge and a fortune cookie) were the icy, very sweet fluorescent green pistachio ice cream. Where pistachio and American Chinese food made that marriage, I don’t know. But I still relate one with the other.
The offerings at the Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (the “original” was added when a string of impostors opened in Soho and Flushing) are a far cry from that generic, grainy dessert of yesteryear. They do offer pistachio (and it’s slightly less glow-in-the-dark) but they also create unique, real Chinese-inspired flavors such as lychee, black sesame, and almond cookie. The flavors change from season to season so in the past I’ve seen wasabi, avocado, and even durian.
At this stage in the culinary melting pot (especially in New York), green tea and red bean aren’t as exotic as they once were. The Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (not to be confused with the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory) offers those traditional Chinese flavors but also have built their own concoctions, such as Zen Butter (peanut butter ice cream with toasted sesame seeds) and Pandan (a citrusy Malaysian leaf that turns everything bright green)
And that’s really what all the fuss is about this tiny little place. There’s no atmosphere to speak of – just newspaper clippings and some tchotchkes on the wall. There’s not even room for a table. So you have to get your ice cream and go. They also offer ice cream cakes (in their usual unusual flavors – lychee/ mango/green tea, anyone?)
When it comes to Chinese desserts in general, sweetness is often a last priority but they still work as a foil to any savory meal. That’s true here too. Most of the ice creams are not incredibly sweet. But they still have that rich, creaminess that cools you down.
So since there were so many unusual options, I wanted to try as many as possible. However, I was quickly cut off after two samples – that’s their limit, it seems. I remember my best ice cream experience (Jeni’s in Columbus) where they were just as excited as I was to let me sample as many of their original flavors as possible. The Chinese kids working here were not nearly as passionate about their ice cream as the kids in the Mid-West. That’s New York for you.
Unlike at other spots in Chinatown, there’s not much of a language barrier here (just a flavor barrier). All the employees speak perfect English (without any detection of an accent), so if you can’t sample the flavors, maybe they can talk to you about it.
The two I picked to sample were the aformentioned Zen Butter (which had a sweet flavor but a bit of an icy texture) and one of my favorite exotic fruits: lychee. They offer both a lychee ice cream and a lychee sorbet. I was worried the sorbet would be too cloying (you have to add sugar to make up for the lack of cream), but the ice cream was refreshing and much creamier in texture than I had expected. It also wasn’t too sweet, which was a nice change.
So in order to taste as much as possible, I put two scoops on a cone. My favorite here has always been the black sesame. I compare it to an American Cookies n Cream. It has that same deep slate color but instead of cookie chunks there’s a mixture of black sesame pieces. But again, it’s not as sweet as we’re used to which is a nice change. I did find it a bit grainy – sesame seeds are not the smoothest of textures. I also had a scoop of the Almond Cookie. Almond is not my favorite flavor, so I’m not sure why I chose this. And while I liked the crunchy cookie pieces that balanced the smooth ice cream, I was not a fan of the extract flavor. I mean, this is what almond cookies tastes like so they’ve succeeded I suppose. But it’s just not my thing.
This ice cream is different than what we’re used to in this country and it’s mostly a pleasant surprise. And the Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory has been around and original since 1978 (still owned by the Seid family). Now if only they’d start supplying the dessert options for the Cantonese restaurants across the country, American kids wouldn’t have to grow up with that scary green stuff.
Is the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory the best ice cream in NY? It’s totally different than the other options out there – both in texture and flavor. Some people won’t like their less sweet, slightly icy options, but I give it a 7 out of 10 because I think it’s a unique and exotic alternative.
|CHINATOWN ICE CREAM FACTORY|
|65 Bayard Street (between Elizabeth Street and Mott Street)