The ice cream stars are aligning over the next three weeks: it’s Klondike’s 100th anniversary this year, National Bomb Pop Day is the last Thursday in June (the 30th this time around) and National Ice Cream Day is July 17. Thus, alas, I’m bound by fate. What is there to do but single-handedly try every item in the ice cream truck? Such a difficult job. Woe is me, but I live to serve you, the reader.
Better stuff a napkin in the neck of your T-shirt! This definitive ranking of that bastion of childhood summers — ice cream truck treats — is going to get messy!
11. Snow cones
One of my fondest visual childhood memories is looking up at the row of snow cone syrups in every color, the light glittering through in the impromptu street cathedral of a sunny afternoon, a literal rainbow promise of any flavor I wanted. The reality, though, was without fail a disappointment: faintly scented crushed ice on top, undiluted corn syrup at the bottom — the worst of both worlds. Not to be confused with uniformly flavored and finely textured raspados (Mexican shaved ice), snow cones are irretrievably busted, but if you feel you must indulge in the inferior crushed ice variety, Hawaiian Shaved Ice has a great flavor assortment for home use. On a scale of 1 to 10, snow cones go to 11 in a bad way, but I'd suggest using it for Italian soda instead.
10. Character pops
Made in the shapes of your favorite cartoon and comic characters (or rather in the shape of their heads), these are definitely popular with the knee-high crowd. They’re vaguely fruity and sherbet-like, with extremely fine ice crystals, as though someone froze and sliced a Slurpee. The drawing on the package will hook you, but the treat inside is often a pale imitation —the colors are faded and the details scant by comparison. I prefer the Popsicle brand to the ice cream vendor-exclusive Blue Bunny character pops, even though the latter seals the deal with gumball eyes. Those peepers are teeth-crackingly frozen solid of course, and you get to them before you finish the pop. Now what? Hold them in your sticky hands? Try to chew them and eat the ice pop at the same time? These are near the bottom of the barrel, unless you’re a kid and they have SpongeBob today. Then obviously they’re five stars, and at the top of not just this list, but every list.
9. Ice pops
Flavored ice pops are available in a dizzying variety of flavors, from single flavor sticks to triple-banded Bomb Pops and their doppelgängers. Almost every brand has their take, but I have to give kudos to tried-and-true Popsicle, which is transitioning to natural colors without sacrificing saturation. They’re also the makers of Warheads and Jolly Ranchers flavors, and the owner of the trademarked name Popsicle! That’s right, like Kleenex, Band-Aid and Google, its brand name is so well-known that it has trouble keeping it to itself. Original Bomb Pop’s cross-marketing answers with Hawaiian Punch and Nerds in appropriately crazy colors. If you love those candies and drinks, you’ll love those flavors, but a word of warning: the top section is unsecured by the Popsicle stick and prone to falling off, resulting in great toddler wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Even though ice pops are not high on my list, I get the occasional hankering. My favorite nostalgia picks are Original Bomb Pop’s Banana Fudge (sometimes I just want fake banana flavor, OK?), and Popsicle’s Firecracker, which we are all legally required to purchase on the Fourth of July. Hope you brought some wet wipes!
8. Push-up pops
These were a staple of my late 20th century upbringing. I can still see the orange sherbet and the primary-colored dots on the packaging, which I adored. It reminded me of clown suits, in that cheerful way that appeals to you before you read Stephen King’s "It." It seems like a lot of packaging waste for a small treat, but they are undeniably fun. They don’t have dots anymore, but Nestle makes Push-Up Pops in orange, grape and cherry, with no artificial colors or flavors.
7. Sundae cups
I’ll admit these taste pretty good. Somehow they manage to keep the texture smooth and largely uncrystallized despite long-term freezing. But self-contained packaging is cheating. You can’t order something from an ice cream truck that isn’t going to melt all over your hand and drip down your arm, or at least turn your tongue blue! Plus, how are you going to steer your bike holding the spoon?
6. Ice cream sandwiches
I love the idea of an ice cream sandwich. Homemade ones are spectacular. Most of the packaged ones are like dipping cookies in milk but with none of the charm — it’s soaked and soggy all the way through the cookie part in a flash, and the ice cream melts too fast. The last couple of "bites" are cookie soup in the bottom of the folded wrapper. Still, let an entire summer pass without having one? Unthinkable.
Blue Bunny brand makes several unusual flavors, and Rocky Road is my pick for the chocolate wafer sort.
Unless you’re lucky enough to live where you can get your warm hands on a cold Chipwich, the tastiest iteration of the ice cream sandwich is Good Humor’s Chocolate Chip Cookie one. It’s not traditional, but it is pretty chipper.
5. Cookie- and cake-coated bars
Most of the ice cream bars coated in cake or cookie bits have a flavored center, but not all, and some brands have a thicker cake nugget coating than others. Choose carefully. Most brands also make a pretty good chocolate éclair version, cookies and cream and cross-marketed flavors like Reese’s, but the strawberry shortcake ones are refreshingly different. They typically contain real strawberry and have a nice tartness to them. I think the best is Blue Bunny’s Load’d Strawberry Shortcake Bar, which has a strawberry swirl, cake bits inside and cookie bits in the white chocolate coating.
Another one similar to this category but coated in crushed almonds is the Toasted Almond Bar; Good Humor’s version is the best thing in its entire lineup.
This orange-and-cream dream is a mashup of an orange ice pop coating and vanilla cream center, in which the sum is greater than the parts. It’s hard to squeeze refreshment and creaminess into the same package, but these fit the bill. So simple and bright, it’s like sunshine on a stick. Good Humor’s Creamsicle has that flavor you remember, with a thin, robustly orange coating.
3. Klondike Bars
Try one and you’ll understand why the company has lasted for 100 years. In one way, they’re like some of the bars above, but there’s no awkward wooden stick flavor there at the end. The ice cream is also superior to most other bars, and they’ve really perfected a chocolate coating with the perfect thickness for a satisfying crack. Avowed chocoholics might grab the Double Chocolate, but in this case, I prefer the flavors that have the contrast of vanilla ice cream with the coating. My personal favorite is the Heath Bar, but there’s something for everyone — Mint Chocolate, Reese’s and Dark Chocolate.
I would do a lot for a Klondike Bar, but I’d do more to see Choco Taco back in wider availability after its limited Taco Bell re-release earlier this year. So far, Klondike says it remains in very limited a availability, so cross your fingers with me that they see the error of their ways.
Do not call them ice pops; these Mexican frozen treats are a different horse altogether. If you have a paletería near you with freshly made treats, they’re going to be superior, but the boxed ones are still delightful. They usually use real fruit and cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. Some of my favorites include coconut, lime, strawberry and pineapple. If you are lucky enough to track down a Mangonada, jump on it — it’s flavored with chamoy, a Mexican condiment made from chiles and pickled fruit.
And now we come to the top of the pops, the cream of the cream:
1. Waffle cones
Klondike bars come close to No. 1 for me, but the addition of a waffle cone to dipped ice cream is impossible to beat. That last bite of the cone, with a little bit of ice cream, a little waffle cone and a lot of chocolate, is so good I almost look forward to the end. Most brands have their own version — Good Humor’s King Cone and Blue Bunny’s Load’d cones are coated inside but not dipped on top. Although I love the Load’d bars, I think the mix-ins overwhelm the cones. My personal pick is the Nestle Drumstick. The original vanilla with chocolate dip and chopped peanut coating is unsurpassed for nostalgia points, but I think the best new one is the caramel filled. If you aren’t crazy about peanuts, check out its Simply Dipped, Cookie Dipped, Crunch Dipped and undipped versions. There are variety packs available in stores, too.