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Straight Outta ‘Portlandia’

Salt & Straw wants to serve you ice cream—with a bird on it.  

Kim and Tyler Malek.

 

Salt & Straw sells ice cream, but a visit to one of its shops can resemble a wine tasting. Every month, the company debuts five new flavors (in addition to the many already on regular rotation), and you’re encouraged to try them all. Each flight comes with a story: One might introduce ingredients that would otherwise have been wasted, such as fallen fruit salvaged from the ground of orchards, while another might encompass an entire Thanksgiving menu. “Taken out of context, someone could just say, ‘They serve turkey ice cream,’ but it’s really a five-course meal,” says Tyler Malek, one of Salt & Straw’s founders. “When you have the stuffing and the sweet potatoes, it’s not weird anymore.”

Ever since Tyler and his cousin Kim founded Salt & Straw in Portland in 2011, the company has been synonymous with unusual flavors, serving scoops swirled with both nostalgia—what Kim Malek calls “that complete delight of being a kid”—and an appeal to more adventurous palates. Bone marrow with smoked cherries and foie gras with oatmeal raisin cookies are among Salt & Straw’s more memorable creations; the Maleks have also dreamed up flavors with distillers, doughnut makers, chefs, and elementary school students. They make ice cream dosed with locally made bitters and crammed with locally harvested pistachios—the sorts of things, in other words, that make Salt & Straw sound quintessentially Portland (and, OK, Portlandia). And also, not incidentally, perfect for the Bay Area.

This month, Salt & Straw will finally join our ice cream landscape: The company will open its first San Francisco location in Pacific Heights, with a second to follow in Hayes Valley in May. The Maleks won’t be shipping pints from Portland or relying entirely on old recipes for their debut.

Strawberry-honey-balsamic ice cream with black pepper.

Photo: Leela Cyd

“We knew that we’d want to start over as if we were a new company,” Kim says. And yes, they know that opening an offbeat, locally sourced ice cream store in the hometown of Bi-Rite, Humphry Slocombe, and Mitchell’s is a potential coals-to-Newcastle situation. But they believe there’s room for more. “Ice cream,” Tyler notes, “is so individualistic.” Plus, he adds, their strength lies in the way they provide context to each sample; every flavor is “a really cool story that we want to tell.”

Conjuring stories to tell about ice cream takes time, and to that end, the Maleks have been doing their homework. After touring Berkeley Olive Grove’s orchard in Butte County, Tyler experimented with olive blossoms, leaves, and oils, eventually creating a lemon custard to punch up the oil’s citrusy, floral aromas. He and Kim have met with La Cocina’s entrepreneurs to plan collaborations, the first of which will be a coconut ice cream that incorporates Nafy Flatley’s milky, tropical baobab juice. They’ve whipped Marshall’s Farm honey—harvested from urban apiaries around the Bay Area—into marshmallow ribbons. And while pairing chocolate and coffee is nothing new, Tyler is particularly excited about a flavor that combines Rwandan Sightglass coffee with Dandelion chocolate from Tanzania.

Opening a shop here isn’t all honey marshmallows and Senegalese fruit, however. Kim “kept getting these warnings,” she says, about the difficulties of hiring in San Francisco, so they’ve launched a partnership with United Way to seek out inexperienced candidates who might be struggling to finish school. The partnership, says Casey Milligan, Salt & Straw’s director of operations, has helped the company create “an alternate channel of candidates.”

The Maleks already have at least one local fan who’s looking forward to their unusual scoops. “That’s what I love them for,” says Tartine cofounder Elisabeth Prueitt. “They really take each season and explore all the sweet and savory flavors.” Prueitt, who recently opened Tartine Cookies and Cream, believes the local scene has plenty of room for the Maleks. “I think every corner could have a bakery or a pizza shop, and the same could be said of ice cream,” she says. “I’m super excited to have another point of view and option here.”

The Maleks are excited, too. Both say they were “blown away” by the success of a recent pop-up in front of their upcoming shop. Despite the endless rain, Kim recalls, the line stretched an entire block. “I find spending time here really moving,” she says. “It feels like people won’t settle for how things have been done before. There’s real innovation, and it’s pushing us to do things we’ve always wanted to do.”

 

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

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