I can already tell I am going to spend way too much of my money here.
That's what I thought to myself as I took my first spoonful of ice cream at Jeni's Ice Creams (3404 N. Southport Ave. 773-348-7139), the first Chicago scoop shop from Columbus, Ohio-based artisanal dessert company Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams.
Chicago is the third-largest market for founder Jeni Britton Bauer's pint-by-mail business, and after constant requests from fans to open a store here, she set up shop just off the Southport Brown Line earlier this month. "It's by far our busiest store," Britton Bauer said. "It's beyond our wildest expectations, so it's pretty exciting."
With 26 to 30 flavors featured at any given time, there's a lot to choose from. Here are some strategies—gleaned from my trip to the shop and interview with Britton Bauer—to maximize deliciousness on your next visit.
Know the lingo
Jeni's sells ice cream, sorbet and frozen yogurt, but you won't see them organized that way on the chalkboard menu wall behind the counter. You will find flavors separated into three categories. Signature flavors are classics that are available year-round. "You can always rely on those being there," Britton Bauer said. "Salty caramel, we've had for 17 years." Perennial flavors are seasonal batches that come back for a certain amount of time each year before going into hibernation. Limited edition flavors are one-time experiments that the Jeni's team masterminds on a whim. "We make what we think is going to be the right amount and maybe we run out," Britton Bauer said. Right now, limited edition flavors range from bergamot froyo to double-toasted coconut ice cream.
In addition to generously doling out samples in tiny plastic spoons, Jeni's staffers are well-versed in the rainbow of flavors before them and happily answer questions. So ask—otherwise you may not know that Cloverton is a cheesecake-like flavor made with creamy Cloverton cheese from Ohio's Laurel Valley Creamery. Or that The Buckeye State is a combo of peanut butter and chocolate. Or that Loveless Biscuits & Peach Jam was inspired by the addictive biscuits at Nashville's Loveless Cafe. (It's also so mind-bogglingly delicious that if I could figure out a way to luxuriate in a giant pool of it, I would.) Avid asking and sampling can also prevent post-purchase regret, which can happen if you get caught up in the marketing language of Jeni's treats. For example, I ordered roasted strawberry buttermilk expecting to be blown away by smoky roasted berries and tangy buttermilk; really, it's just strawberry ice cream (albeit a perfectly lovely one) that's a little oversold by the elaborate name.
You can get a waffle cone full of just one flavor, but the best way to experience Jeni's is in a trio (three flavors in a bowl, $5.50) or sundae ($6.50-$7.50). The latter can include your choice of scoops topped with sauce (such as honey-butterscotch or salty caramel), toppings (cherries, whipped cream, smoked almonds) and gravel, which is basically crumbles of various tasty things (cookies, doughnuts, graham crackers). Because there are seemingly endless combinations, Jeni's launched an Instagram campaign earlier this summer asking customers to snap photos of their sundae, tag them #jenisgravel and give their creation a name. The result is a pretty awesome crowd-sourced menu that you can easily browse on your phone while waiting in line. If you're not an avid Instagrammer, here are a few of Britton Bauer's suggested combinations: chamomile ice cream with strawberry sauce and doughnut gravel; banana-honey ice cream with salty caramel sauce, graham cracker gravel and whipped cream; Cloverton ice cream with hot fudge, graham cracker gravel and chocolate gravel, which tastes like chocolate cheesecake, she said.
Speak up if you like it—or if you don't
Britton Bauer said that monitoring the likes and gripes of customers is how Jeni's continues to fine-tune its flavor roster. "It's OK for a flavor to fail. … Sometimes the things we love, customers hate," she said, citing two of her favorite flavors--Queen City Cayenne, a spicy chocolate, and Bangkok Peanut—that are disliked by most but adored by a select few. Feedback is also how limited-edition flavors become perennials or signatures.
When in doubt, go for the booze
Even if you're not a big drinker, you'll love what Britton Bauer has done with wine, spirits and beer. Riesling-poached pear sorbet is light and delicate, while cherry lambic sorbet was addictively tart. I'll definitely be back to try whiskey-pecan, a signature flavor.
JENI'S BY THE NUMBERS
During my Tuesday evening visit to Jeni's, I spotted …
26 flavors on the chalkboard menu
5 staffers behind the counter
3 bros with waffle cones
2 parents pushing strollers
2 runners stopping in for a post-workout treat
1 screaming child
That's how long founder Jeni Britton Bauer estimates the wait on her Southport shop's opening night was. The line stretched for four blocks and the shop stayed open late to make sure everyone in line got a taste.
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