Best ice cream experiences in San Francisco

Left to right: BiRite Creamery's brown sugar with ginger caramel, Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous' buttermilk ice cream and B-day cake ice cream, Smitten's blood orange, Humphry Slocombe's Secret Breakfast and Pear Lambic.

[Biting Commentary is in San Francisco until Friday.]

"It's freezing," a girl says as she walks into an ice cream shop and orders a scoop. And that sums up San Francisco's love affair with ice cream. For a city that's cold and foggy 90 percent of the year, there's a surprisingly strong ice cream culture. Mitchell's has been an institution for 50 years—the Waiola Shave Ice of ice cream in San Francisco—but over the past decade, newer frozen dessert makers have emerged, some even jettisoning the traditional technique of creme anglaise churned in a batch freezer for newer techniques, like liquid nitrogen or Pacojets. Others play with flavors—prosciutto, say—while the newest pays homage to soda fountain classics. Here's a tour of San Francisco via ice cream.

Scream Sorbet

Without dairy, Scream sorbets aren't technically ice cream, but some of the nut flavors—pistachio, saffron almond—still provide a luxuriously rich mouthfeel. Whereas traditional ice cream requires fat and sugar for a creamy texture, Scream achieves this texture with a Pacojet, a high-powered food processor that whips frozen solids. The result: intensely flavored sorbets unfettered by fats. A pistachio frozen dessert has never tasted so pure; the grapefruit sorbet tastes like the best grapefruit you've ever eaten. This is my favorite frozen treat in San Francisco.

At the Ferry Building Thursdays and Saturdays; even better, visit them at their Oakland location where the texture suffers less from transportation,

Bi-Rite Creamery

This is where you're most likely to see adults and children, all bundled in parkas, lining up around the block for classic and familiar flavors like vanilla, chocolate, and cookies and cream as well as the more adult, yet comforting tastes, like salted caramel and brown sugar with ginger caramel. This is some of the creamiest, richest ice cream in the city. Bi-Rite Creamery is also coming out with a cookbook—Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones—in April, penned by Honolulu resident Dabney Gough.

Humphry Slocombe

Not so far from Bi-Rite is Humphry Slocombe, where the fun is in the flavors: secret breakfast, cornflakes in bourbon ice cream; prosciutto ice cream made with porky product from local charcutier Boccalone; azuki bean and Dr. Pepper. The combinations don't always work and some tend to have a slightly savory bent, but if you wanted to play vanilla-safe, there are plenty of other ice cream parlors around town. The Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream Book is also coming out in April.

Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous

In the up and coming neighborhood of Dogpatch, where construction cranes outnumber chic boutiques, is Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous, with flavors somewhere between Bi-Rite and Humphry Slocombe. There's fudge ripple; B-day cake, with chunks of chocolate cake and sprinkles; Pink Squirrel, flavored with almond and chocolate liqueur. Flavors are more muted here.

Smitten Ice Cream 

At Smitten, housed in a recycled shipping container on a newly built streetscape, each scoop is mixed and frozen to order by pumping liquid nitrogen into an ice cream base, resulting in an incredibly dense, rich ice cream more akin to frozen custard. There are only a few flavors at a time—vanilla, chocolate and usually a seasonal fruit—the fun is in watching the liquid nitrogen billow out of the stand mixer.

The Ice Cream Bar

At The Ice Cream Bar, ice cream is just half of the equation. This is a classic soda fountain re-creation, a revival of soda jerks and their vocabulary of malts, phosphates, lactarts, egg creams, panaceas as well as the still beloved floats and milkshakes. Sit at the bar, where tinctures and aromatics like juniper, sassafras, pink peppercorn and tobacco line the counter. It feels like a soda fountain childhood I never had, but modern flavor combinations ground this time capsule in 21st century San Francisco. There's the Touch of Grey, with candy cap mushroom syrup, soda and acid phosphate (which imparts a sour flavor); and My Girlfriends Girlfriend, with roasted pineapple syrup, pink peppercorn tincture, soda and lactart (one of the acidulants used along with phosphate during the soda fountain era), which gives the drink tartness.