Next time you’re craving a sweet scoop (or two), do yourself a favor: Skip the grocery store ice cream. No, not because of #summerbodygoals—it’s because you can do so much better. At these unique U.S. ice cream shops, pastry chefs and self-taught artisans are giving America’s favorite frozen treat an irresistible makeover that you’re going to want to taste.
From out-of-the-box flavors like Green Chili and Thai Rice to creative takes on classics, like an ice cream sandwich made with doughnuts instead of cookies, here are 20 unique, small ice cream shops across the nation to try.
1. The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
New York City
Tucked into a busy street in the neighborhood that gives its name, this four-decades-old shop is a tourist draw for a reason. Almond Cookie ice cream, Black Sesame ice cream, Red Bean ice cream—there isn’t a traditional Chinese sweet that hasn’t inspired the confectioners at the Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. And they’re creative with their mashups too: Green-Tea Oreo, Caramel Zen Butter, Caramel Bacon Swirl.
2. Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream
New York City
There are a lot of old-school-esque ice cream parlors in New York City serving tubs of old-school-esque flavors. Although this shop’s charming graphics and simple design might indicate otherwise, Morgenstern’s Finest is not one of them.
Opened in 2014, this wildly popular parlor makes small-batch variations of classic flavors. Vanilla, for example, is offered as Madagascar, Burnt Honey, Bourbon, French, or Rum Raisin, while strawberry can be Balsamic, Smooth and Delicious, or Pistachio Pesto. The creativity also extends to Morgenstern’s menu of untraditional flavors, including Raw Milk, Durian, or the Insta-famous Black Coconut Ash.
3. Humphry Slocombe
San Francisco, California
A pint of the stuff might cost you an arm and a leg (or like, $10), but the occasional scoop of Humphry Slocombe is easily worth the indulgence. At this Bay Area ice cream shop, flavors range from dressed-up classics like Tahitian Vanilla and Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee to newer innovations like Mango Lassi, Secret Breakfast, and Hibiscus Beet Sorbet.
4. Molly Moon’s
These scoops are doing their part to make the world a better place: Seattle-based Molly Moon’s sources 90 percent of its ingredients from the Pacific Northwest, donates 20,000 gallons of milk to food banks each year, ensures that everything in the shop is completely compostable, and donates 10 percent of its profits to equity organizations. And it tastes damned good while doing all that. Stop into one of its nine Seattle-area locations to make your way through its mix of “always” flavors (Melted Chocolate, Sweet Cream, and “Scout” Mint, made from Girl Scout cookies they buy from local scouts) and its seasonal rotation (including flavors like vegan Blueberry Pie or New York Cheesecake).
5. Clementine’s Naughty & Nice Ice Cream
St. Louis, Missouri
Clementine’s Naughty & Nice Ice Cream is a micro-creamery with several locations in St. Louis whose playful flavors—which are either “naughty” (as in, boozy) or “nice” (spirit-free)—earned it a spot on Oprah’s O List in 2019. Although you’ll likely be tempted by full-dairy options like the boozy Banana Rum or Hot Chocolate with Marshmallows, don’t sleep on its vegan flavors. Unlike other vegan options, which sometimes carry a hint of oat, coconut, or whichever milk-replacement they’ve used, these dairy-free scoops, such as the Strawberry Crunch, could fool even the most avid ice cream lover among us.
6. Fifty Licks
Portland is no stranger to serving up unique foods, so why would the city’s ice cream be any different? At Fifty Licks, ultra-rich custards are scooped up in flavors like Thai Rice (jasmine rice–infused cream with a hint of pandan) and Cornbread with Honey Butter. There are funky options for vegans, too. Our favorite? The fresh pineapple flavor, which is infused with Thai basil.
7. Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats
The tasty treats served from this eye-catching ice cream truck have a decidedly retro flair. Channeling inspiration from the ’50s rock-and-roll era, Goodies Frozen Custard and Treats serves classic frozen custard, sundaes, and shakes throughout the Washington, D.C. area.
But don’t let the familiarity of its style fool you. The menu includes innovative concoctions like the doughnutwich, an ice cream sandwich made with an apple cider cake doughnut, and Sweet Potato Pie custard.
8. Cloud City Ice Cream
Cloud City is a true standout in the city’s artisanal ice cream scene. Its vibe is unpretentious, its treats are locally sourced, and each of its 30 daily flavors has a twist. Seasonal favorites include the Unicorn (mascarpone ice cream swirled with red velvet cake chunks and strawberry jam) and the Roasted Balsamic Cherry Mascarpone, but tasty scoops like Chocolate Stout and Earl Grey Blueberry are available year round.
9. Lick Honest Ice Cream
Since opening the doors of Lick Honest Ice Cream in 2011, cofounders Chad Palmatier and Anthony Sobotik have run a hyper-local ice cream shop inspired by their small town upbringings. With shops in San Antonio and Austin, going local means Lick draws inspiration, and ingredients, from within Texas to develop its seasonal menus.
Lick sources the dairy for its ice cream from Mill-King Market & Creamery outside of Waco. Funky flavors like Banana Nut Fudge and Tequila Lime Coconut also use produce (such as bananas and peanuts) and goods (Dulce Vida tequila) from Texas.
10. Spun Ice Cream
Making a single scoop of ice cream to order might sound like some kind of magic trick, but at Spun Ice Cream in Austin, it’s business as usual. That’s because co-owners Ashley and Christina Cheng use liquid nitrogen to freeze their organic ice cream batters so customers get a made-to-order treat free of emulsifiers, preservatives, or stabilizers.
The real magic, however, lies in Spun’s rotating menu of flavors and toppings. Customers can mix and match or choose from specially crafted sundaes. The Toastess with the Mostess, for example, includes toast ice cream, Valencia orange marmalade, brown butter powder, and a tiny brûléed toast.
11. La Lecheria
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Adventurous eaters: Keep an eye out for seasonal flavors, like Red Chili Honey, Prickly Pear Margarita sorbet, Sweet Corn, Avocado, or Habanero Vanilla, which showcase Southwest flavors you wouldn’t necessarily expect to encounter in a scoop of ice cream or sorbet.
12. Taharka Brothers
Serving all-natural, small-batch ice cream in a bright pink ice cream truck, as well as to more than 100 restaurants, scoop shops, and stores around Baltimore and nearby D.C., Taharka Brothers is as well known for its delicious flavors as it is for its community involvement. CEO Devon Brown named the business after a mentor of his, Taharka McCoy, who was murdered in 2002 at the age of 25. Today, Taharka Brothers seeks to show that “young African American males can run successful, responsible businesses,” said Brown in the 2015 documentary A Dream Preferred.
But, of course, it also makes darn good ice cream, turning some of our favorite desserts into frozen, creamy concoctions: a tangy take on Key lime pie; its sweet-and-savory Honey Graham signature flavor; Matcha Mochi; and the coffee and fudge-filled flavor, Wake and Bake—to name a few.
13. Browndog Creamery and Dessert Bar
Bar plus ice cream parlor equals barlor, right? It does near Detroit at Browndog Creamery, where scoops of small-batch ice cream are mixed with booze, served flight-style, or dunked into pints of beer. There are kid-friendly treats, too, but for the over-21 set, favorite combos are the Jacked-Up Carrot Cake (infused with Jack Daniels, bits of cake, and a cream cheese swirl) and customizable floats made with Michigan draft beers.
14. Black Dog Gelato
Sure, gelato isn’t technically ice cream, but the inventive offerings at Black Dog Gelato in Chicago easily warrant it a spot on this list. Chef and owner Jessie Oloroso mixes up batches of the creamy Italian treat the traditional way—but flavors like Blueberry French Toast and Sesame Fig Chocolate Chip make this gelateria anything but old school.
15. Garden Creamery
San Francisco, California
There are more than a few notable ice cream parlors in San Francisco, but Garden Creamery sets itself apart with its salmon pink facade and rotating selection of Asian-inspired flavors. Hawai‘i-born Erin Lang and her partner Donny Capozzi started selling frozen treats from a similarly colored food truck several years ago; they opened their first brick-and-mortar store in 2017 in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Patrons line up not only for scoops of Mango Sticky Rice and Butter Mochi Toasted Sesame, but also for Lang’s decadently flavored semifreddo ice cream sandwiches. Garden Creamery does more than cater to dairy lovers: The store also offers a plentiful selection of plant-based options like Thai Iced Tea and Kona Coffee, all made with coconut milk and agave nectar.
16. Franklin Fountain
At the nostalgic Franklin Fountain, workers wear old-timey outfits and serve takeaway sundaes in Chinese-food containers. And sure, the gimmicks add to the charm of this popular tin-ceilinged shoppe in Philadelphia’s Old City (started by two brothers in 2004), but they’re not necessary. The ice cream here stands on its own, made with cream from local Pennsylvania farms (all of the shop’s suppliers are listed on its website). The menu sticks mostly to classic flavors done right (Butter Pecan, Rum Raisin, Chocolate Chip) with a few modern varieties added (Almond Butter Cherry, Cotton Candy, Sea Salt Caramel, and several vegan options).
17. Bassetts Ice Cream
If a company has been churning ice cream since 1861, you can bet it knows what it’s doing. That’s why Bassetts is an easy decision on any visit to Philly. Located in the Reading Terminal Market (do not let the touristy location dissuade you), Bassetts mixes up a solid classic Vanilla scoop, a sassy Pomegranate and Blueberry Chunk with dark chocolate chips, a smooth Matcha, a very dark chocolate, and about 40 other flavors.
18. Sebastian Joe’s
Every day brings something new at Sebastian Joe’s. That’s because the ice cream is handmade daily in small batches—and the flavors rotate. And just because the crew here knows how to deliver foundation flavors like Vanilla, Chocolate, and Cookies-and-Cream, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a bit of whimsy to them. Local faves include Pavarotti (Vanilla ice cream with caramel, bananas, and chocolate chips) and Nicollet Avenue Pothole (a chocolate base with Heath bar, fudge truffles, caramel, and sea salt).
19. Wild Scoops
At Wild Scoops, many ice cream names have special meanings to Alaskans. Take for instance Redoubts Revenge—a nod to an active volcano in Alaska—that mixes Chocolate ice cream with cayenne, cinnamon, and chocolate shards. Beyond the names, the ingredients are primarily locally sourced, too—from milk to add-ins like Black Cup coffee, homemade honeycomb candy, rhubarb and beets picked from customers’ gardens, and cookies made by other Anchorage area companies. Get the homemade waffle cone (made with notes of cinnamon and star anise) topped with Baked Alaska (a swirl of toasted marshmallow fluff).
20. Wanderlust Creamery
Los Angeles, California
This small SoCal chain just opened a new outpost among other L.A. favorites (including the iconic Tail O’ the Pup) at Westfield Topanga’s new food court. As the name suggests, the menu takes you on a vicarious tour of the world with its flavors, from a Kinder egg–inspired hazelnut and milk chocolate mix to Vietnamese Rocky Road, a French Honey Lavender, and Ube Malted Cruch—inspired by chef Adrienne Borlongan’s American Filipino upbringing. Wanderlust Creamery is also in Venice and ship pints nationwide.
This article was originally published in 2019. It was most recently updated on May 8, 2023 to include new information. Billie Cohen, Bailey Berg, Jessie Beck, and Tim Chester contributed to the reporting of this story.