In the nooks and crannies of cities that the big chains don't care to control, you'll find the indestructible food of America: hot dogs and floppy, generic burgers; chop suey; fried catfish; and yeah, ice cream. Not the marble-slab mix-in stuff with the pedigree of superpremium, but the ice cream of a sugary, chocolate-swirled exuberance, firmly rooted in a particular neighborhood, a roster of flavors with the power to send a thread of longing through a kid's summer like the trajectory of a crush. The jimmy-sprinkled heart of delight, packed onto a pale, factory-made cone.
You won't find a more fertile cranny for old-school ice cream than San Leandro's Washington Manor, a place so steeped in the past it seems preserved in formaldehyde. The neighborhood is a wide swath of postwar ranch houses fronting lawns, or ghostly patches of white gravel where lawns used to be. Clancy's Ice Cream Parlour sits in semi-obscurity, dwarfed by a 7-Eleven and a vertical expanse of stucco at the back of a neighboring strip mall.
If the East Bay's ice cream culture is an embarrassment of artisan riches, Clancy's is enjoyment untarnished by concerns about perfection. Places like Sketch and Ici are all about drop-dead perfection. If you're not totally on board with, say, the lemon verbena granita, you can feel like the sweaty guy in a stained tracksuit in Tiffany's. And while Ici's rose-petal ice cream is undeniably lovely, it's questionable whether a flower-scented dessert could ever be as unselfconsciously pleasurable as a big old scoop of Burgundy Cherry.
In unfancy San Leandro, a complex alchemy of extracts makes Clancy's Burgundy Cherry achieve plausible elegance. Pink like Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hat, it balances vanilla and almond extracts in a way that suggests a quality as frigidly upscale as the semiotics of "Burgundy": a mashup of some generalized aura of French fanciness with an irresistibly chichi shade of polyester prom gown. Add musky hunks of dark fruit (with the saturated-in-syrup quality of Maraschinos) and what you've got is so evocative of some Eisenhower-era idea of classy it's almost startling.
Inside, the dim little ice cream shop is a tribute to the 1970s not the Lucite tables and shag rugs of the cool '70s, but the '70s of Sears catalogue decor: Tiffany-style swag lamps and spindly-legged captain's chairs, the kind of thrift-store swag even the archest hipster wouldn't touch. Lovably crusty Clancy's adds a strong whiff of Irish pride. Shirred shamrock-print curtains screen the windows, and shamrock-print paper covers the walls. There's a yellowed plaque celebrating the coats of arms of Ireland, the Tiffany swags wear distinguished coats of dust, and the menu board mimics some enormous family crest. A taped-up grammar-school-class tribute hails "Mr. Clancy's," but Mr. Clancy seems to have long ago left the building, and you suspect the kids who taped their portraits to the curling testimonial long ago have sworn off Oreo Mint Krunch double cones.
The elderly Asian couple who run the place maintain the timewarp, with stacked-up sugar cones and stainless-steel hot fudge pumps. They still make the old specials, such as the Clancy's, an orange-white-and-green Irish tricolor of a sundae, run up on the flagpole of prepubescent sugar shock. It combines a scoop of orange sherbet, one of vanilla, and a third of lurid green mint chip, all plastered with sticky caramel sauce and a sturdy poof of Reddi-wip.
If you're past puberty, a complicated sundae may not be the best way to appreciate Clancy's house-made delights assuming they are house-made. Both halves of the elderly couple told me the ice creams are Clancy's own, but when I started asking questions they turned evasive. Not quite made here, the gentleman said, indicating the back room with its visible hulking frozen yogurt machines, apparently disabled. Over on the other side, he said, moving his arm in a hefty arc to indicate a place quite a bit farther away than the back room.
The ice cream's goodness is undeniable, however. Lush and gooey, it has flavorings that reverberate in your sinuses, and names that ring of late-20th-century America's cornball pleasures: Tin Roof seeds vanilla ice cream with salty, chocolate-covered Valencia peanuts (the small round ones) and veins of runny chocolate reminiscent of Hershey's syrup it burns your throat. Same with the hefty swirls in Peppermint-Fudge, which is pink and candy-cane minty. Toasted Almond tastes convincingly buttery. Mango suspends raspy wisps of bright-gold pulp in a soft vanilla base. You find yourself straining to taste the tartness of fresh fruit. It's elusive enough to make you keep trying.
Oakland's original Loard's has its own elusive flavor of nostalgia. The onetime flagship of East Bay neighborhood ice cream can look a bit deserted. On a recent afternoon, a candy counter faced with speckled Formica was empty but for a few sad-looking packets of swamp-green apple rings. The curving storefront looks out onto the parking lot of an ancient strip mall, in a sharp elbow turn on MacArthur between Laurel and Dimond.
This used to be Ground Zero for local ice cream making. Loard's president Steve Cohan says that here, through the square window behind the shop's rather bare counter, was where the little factory pumped out Russ Salyards' recipes. The ninetysomething Salyards started Loard's (the name is a conflation of letters in his wife's first and last names), and is still part-owner of this original shop. In 1999, Cohan bought the company, and sells its ice creams, sherbets, candies, and ice cream cakes to some forty independently owned stores. Cohan says his San Leandro factory uses Salyards' original recipes. "We're the last of the Mohicans," he says, referring to the fact that Loard's makes relatively small batches of ice creams with relatively high fat content (about 16 percent), and what's known as "low overrun" a minimal amount of pumped-in air, the notorious filler in big-factory ice cream.
The flavor Chocolate Showers is a taste of Salyards' brilliance. It's vanilla interspersed with what Cohan calls a dark liquid chip: basically, chocolate sauce threaded into the freezing ice cream so it flakes, congealing as a shatter-y constellation of chips, from tiny grains to corn-kernel nuggets.
On that afternoon the sticky, resinous smell of green bud permeated the MacArthur Loard's like the aroma of fresh-baked sugar cone. It wafted off a dude standing at the counter, a guy with a nose ring sheathed in a tall tee, placidly watching the milkshake mixer do its thing. There was something comforting in the way he waited patiently for his shake. Even in decline, the neighborhood ice cream parlor remains the sticky-floored repository of innocent delight.
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