By Caroline Brown | PNJ.com – A Ganett Company
Even though summer might be almost over, that doesn’t mean that our sweet tooth has been satisfied. And even though dessert trucks might be synonymous with ice cream trucks for some, there’s a whole world of trucks out there selling everything from sweet waffles to cupcakes to cookies. And even if it’s chilly out, who’s to say that we’re not allowed to eat ice cream? There’s no better way to make the summer last just a little bit longer.
Long before kimchi tacos, years before anybody thought to make burgers and banh mi curbside, or wear costumes and serve Indian food, in 1956, brothers Jim and Bill Conway rigged an old truck with an ice cream machine, mixed in green food coloring, and set out in West Philly to sell soft-serve and celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. It was late winter, and the story goes, they sold out. So it was Mister Softee was born.
Whichever modern pioneer you attribute the current food truck craze to, and whether your allegiance is to Mister Softee or the Good Humor man, it’s hard to argue that the dessert truck hasn’t long been ahead of the curve. And that passion for ice cream and dessert on-the-go is even more ardent today. As trucks’ ice cream has gone artisanal, and soft-serve has been joined by an incredible and advanced array of desserts including cupcakes, donuts, waffles, crepes, and the like, these trucks represent a movement of their own. So it is that when considering a list of the 101 Best Food Trucks in America the past two years, with a few iconic exceptions, it didn’t seem right to do anything but separate dessert trucks out on their own. And so for the first time, The Daily Meal presents the Best Dessert Trucks in America.
The same methodology used and refined in 2012 and 2013 to determine the 101 best food trucks in America from a wide net cast over 450 savory food trucks in 40 cities across America was used to narrow a list of more than 240 dessert trucks across the same geography. Remember, only trucks were considered for this list. No carts, trailers, or stands were up for consideration (sorry Capital City Bakery in Austin! You’re still doing great things!).
First, we consulted a list of dessert trucks that were discovered while researching the best savory food trucks the past two years. To those were added staff favorites and trucks praised by organizations and national and local publications, both print and online. Editors consulted review sites and critical appraisal, and analyzed trucks’ number of Twitter followers and Facebook “likes.” To determine originality, editors examined menu innovation, concept, concept relative to inception, and how that all plays into geography.
As with The Daily Meal’s ranking of savory food trucks, social media presence remained a factor. It’s hard to sell out of cupcakes on a truck if your customers don’t follow you on social media and know where you’re going to be. Between Facebook likes and Twitter followers, you get a fair idea of how large a following a truck has.
So, what were the results? Many of the front-running cities from our list of the 101 Best Food Trucks also featured some of the country’s top dessert trucks. Los Angeles led the list with nine trucks. New York City followed with six, Chicago with five, and San Francisco with four. Washington, D.C.’s dessert trucks, however, did not compete as competitively as the city’s savory food trucks did in the previous study; where seven made the cut for 101 best savory trucks, only two made this list of 50. This may be because, as previously noted, the bar for food trucks across the country continues to rise as increasingly more talented people get into the food truck business. This list also features dessert trucks from Nashville, Tenn., Portland, Ore., Phoenix, Denver, Charlotte, Charleston, S.C., Durham, N.C., Providence, R.I., and Oklahoma City.
Given how much they have ruled the dessert kingdom during the past ten years, it is perhaps not a huge surprise that cupcakes were the most common dessert truck, with 13 trucks on our list. A close second? A classic: ice cream. But not just any ice cream; the list features 12 ice cream trucks that focus on making small batches of artisan ice cream. Ice cream sandwiches were also common fare across the country. No surprise there, given their place in the pantheon of traditional ice cream truck desserts. Perhaps a bit more surprising? Shaved ice takes third with four trucks on our list.
While there were all the donut, crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e, cookies, and waffle trucks you’d expect, this list of America’s best dessert trucks also includes less predictable fare. Consider the all-vegan soft-serve made by Like No Udder in Providence, R.I., honeysuckle gelato in Atlanta, alcohol-infused gelato, and Fluff Ice in Los Angeles. What’s next? Given this year’s Dominique Ansel-driven Cronut craze, dessert fusion hybrids are too perfect for food trucks to miss out on for too long, so be on the lookout for that and many crazy other trends to roll down the street your way soon.
#1 Big Gay Ice Cream Truck – New York City
If you’re in the New York area and have not heard of the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, allow us to pull you out from under your rock. Started in June 2009 by Douglas Quint and Bryan Petroff, Big Gay Ice Cream was the only dessert food truck to make the list of 101 Best Food Trucks in America this year and on last year’s inaugural list. So it is no surprise then that it tops out on the dessert-centric list. Big Gay Ice Cream is known for its eclectic toppings (wasabi pea dust, Sriracha, olive oil, Trix), funky-named creations (Salty Pimp, Mexican Affo’gay’to), and classic custard. Although the truck is on hiatus this summer, the owners clearly state it is not gone for good. They encourage folks to visit their two brick-and-mortar shops while it is off the road, but it still makes our list because of its legacy, innovation, and intent to return to the streets.
#2 Wafels and Dinges – New York City
Wafels and Dinges started before the New York food truck craze began. In April 2007, former IBM management consultant and true Belgian, Thomas DeGeest, founded the first authentic Belgian wafel truck in the city. You get to choose between the traditional Brussels Wafel, which is light and crispy, and the LiÃ¨ge, a softer and chewier version. The dinges, or toppings, range from typical suspects like Nutella and strawberries to Spekuloos, a spread that looks like peanut butter but tastes like gingerbread and cinnamon. The Spekuloos spread helped defeat Bobby Flay in a Throwdown, and is now its own item on the menu. “De Throwdown Wafel” is a LiÃ¨ge wafel smothered in Spekuloos spread and whipped cream. Wafels and Dinges owns multiple trucks and stands that are always popular, so they just opened a brick-and-mortar cafÃ© in the East Village on July 21. Check out the daily challenges posted online to score extra free dinges if you answer the challenge correctly at the truck.
#3 Coolhaus – Los Angeles
Talk about expanding a business: Coolhaus, founded in Los Angeles in 2009, has spread trucks to New York City, Austin, Miami, and Dallas. It was one of the first trucks where you could build your own ice cream sandwich with soft, freshly baked cookies (potato chip & butterscotch, red velvet, s’mores, peanut butter Captain Crunch) and innovative ice cream flavors (strawberry jalapeÃ±o gelato, Peking duck, Cuban cigar). Discounts are posted online with special passwords of the day. If you aren’t located in a city where a truck roams the streets, packaged sandwiches are available in almost 40 states in more than 1,000 markets and accounts. You can also purchase their jarred fried chicken caramel, bacon-infused salt, and vanilla bean-infused sugar, among other unique products. It is also worth mentioning that the Austin and New York City trucks also made our list of the top 50, but since the original location earned the third spot, we decided to recognize all of the locations here.
#4 Get Shaved – Los Angeles
Husband and wife duo Pat and Kristin Roskowick opened Get Shaved in Los Angeles in 2008. The fluffy, Hawaiian-style shave ice is combined with sweetened condensed milk and ice cream, resulting in melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. If you don’t want condensed milk, you can choose to instead top it off with Li Hing Mui powder (made of salty dried plums), sour spray, pico de gallo powder, caramel, or marshmallow. The menu offers “tried & true combos” of ice cream flavors that go well together, such as the “#2 Root Beer Dream” or the “#5 Sour Puss,” but there is a secret menu with even more complex flavors. For instance, “Boys Make Me Nuts” features boysenberry, coconut, and melona shave ice with sweetened condensed milk, and “Evanator” consists of “tigers’ blood,” melona, and strawberry shave ice with sour spray and sweetened condensed milk. Their first brick-and-mortar location opened in San Fernando Valley in May 2010, and there are now two additional shops, one in San Fernando and the other in Torrance, Calif.
#5 The Treats Truck – New York City
When it’s well-executed, simple is the way to go. The Treats Truck, in their own words, is just that: “Not too fancy, always delicious.” The truck first hit the streets in June 2007, and has since been satisfying New Yorkers’ sweet tooth with delicious, affordable treats ever since. “I love treats. I love them. A lot. I believe in treats. I believe in those little moments in the middle of an ordinary day when you treat yourself or a friend to a cookie,” owner Kim Ima said. The best-selling peanut butter cookie sandwich has a rich peanut-y flavor that will pick up anyone’s midday slump. But the menu also has more cookies and cookie sandwiches, bars (try the butterscotch pecan bar), Rice Krispies treats, brownies, and pies. In 2011, The Treat Truck’s first cookbook was published, and most recently, the truck was featured on LIVE with Kelly & Michael! for the show’s “Truckin’ Amazing Cook-Off.” There is also now a brick-and-mortar location in Brooklyn, The Treats Truck Stop, which also offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner with menu items such as the egg and cheese sandwich, a BLT, and mac and cheese. But even though their business is growing, the truck remains active on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
#6 Longboards Vintage Ice Cream – Los Angeles
The beauty of Longboards Vintage Ice Cream is the versatility – the possibilities are endless. Choose an ice cream base (such as coconut, strawberry, or coffee), select a shell to dip it in (Ghirardelli dark chocolate, caramel, etc.), and a topping or two, ranging from rainbow sprinkles to crushed up potato chips. “The Big O,” the truck’s most popular combination, consists of a cookies and cream bar coated in milk chocolate then rolled in Oreo’s. In 2011, the truck won the Best Mobile Ice Cream Bar Award from LA Weekly’s “Best of Los Angeles” awards.
#7 Tropical Shave Ice – Los Angeles
Similar to Get Shaved, Tropical Shave Ice truck has nailed the perfect consistency for shaved ice. It’s fluffy, light, and an ideal refreshing treat for a hot summer day. The Rainbow – a combination of banana, strawberry, and vanilla – is one of the best-sellers. Tropical Shave Ice just celebrated its third birthday by giving the first 300 customers a free shave ice.
#8 HipPOPS Handcrafted Gelato Bars – Miami
Opened only a year ago, HipPOPS is taking South Florida by storm with its portable gelato, sorbet, and frozen yogurt. “This is the hippest way to eat gelato and sorbet,” founder Anthony Fellows said. “You can hold it in one hand. It’s portable, customizable, and not the same-old frozen dessert on a stick.” The truck focuses on using only locally sourced dairy and fruit from local farmers when in season. The bars are all-natural and gluten-free. Like Longboards Vintage Ice Cream, HipPOPS customers choose a base bar (either gelato or sorbet), a dip (or half-dip or drizzle), then “poppings” such as crushed pistachios, pretzels, and Oreos. The gelato and sorbet flavors menu is innovative, with unexpected flavors like Mexican chocolate chipotle gelato and green apple wasabi sorbet.
#9 Cupkates – San Francisco
“Chief Cupcake Officer” Kate McEachern went from being an intern at Chez Panisse to a managing editor at Dwell (a modern design magazine) to the senior content editor at ChefsBest. The combination of these experiences prepared her to launch the Bay Area’s first mobile cupcake truck, Cupkates. Her approach is simple, focusing on top-notch quality ingredients to consistently deliver the best cupcakes in the area. In 2011, Cupkates made SF Week’s list of the Best Food Trucks. The menu is small, but thoughtful. There is a monthly special – Augusts’ is a Key lime pie cupcake with graham cracker crust and fresh Key lime curd filling, topped with toasted meringue frosting. The tiramisu cupcake is a crowd favorite with its ladyfinger crust, espresso-soaked cake, mascarpone frosting, and chocolate shavings.
#10 The Cupcake Collection – Nashville, Tenn.
The Cupcake Collection started out of a living room in 2008 to help dig a Nashville family out of debt. With a giant smile on her face, Mignon FranÃ§ois grew the business from a small bakery at her house – run with the help of her two young daughters – to an established, successful cupcake business and cupcake bus. The Cupcake Collection Bus first began roaming Nashville streets in 2010 due to a demand for the cupcakes at a more convenient location than Germantown. From its beginnings, The Cupcake Collection has made a conscious effort to keep prices low, in spite of dramatic increases in ingredient costs. But even with increased prices, and a new price tier system beginning Aug. 1, the most expensive cupcake is still a mere $2.50. Through the years, FranÃ§ois has never ceased to think of others. This summer, she launched a “Cupcakes for College Tour” to raise money for five college-bound girls who work with the bakery. The bus traveled throughout Tennessee this summer, hosting cupcake-eating contests. All proceeds made from the $5 entry fee went to the ladies’ college funds. The cupcakes, most notably sweet potato, are moist, just sweet enough, and have an approachable icing-to-cake ratio.
#11 My Delight Cupcakery Truck – Ontario, Calif.
Ontario, Calif.’s My Delight Cupcakery is home to the breakfast cupcake: a buttermilk cupcake with applewood-smoked bacon, buttery maple frosting, and crumbled bacon bits. Mother-daughter duo Melinda and Naomi Moreno started the brick-and-mortar bakery in 2009 after daughter Naomi graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts with a pastry arts degree. A truck hit the streets in 2011 with a set menu, which usually sticks pretty close to the daily flavors at the store. In addition to the breakfast cupcake, other favorites include the Southern red velvet cupcake, with classic red velvet cake and topped with a Madagascar vanilla cream cheese frosting.
#12 Torched Goodness – Phoenix
There’s original crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e, and then there’s the crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e Torched Goodness is creating in Phoenix. Flavors like lavender, sea salt caramel, s’mores, chocolate chipotle, and cappuccino are all hand-torched to order. Owner and chef Eric Ireland is constantly creating new flavors to add to a list of the 30-plus already on the rotating menu. We’re not sure what more you could want from a crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e truck. Plus, only organic and locally grown ingredients are used in each recipe.
#13 Sweet Cow – Denver
You can basically hear the cow mooing behind Sweet Cow’s barn brick-and-mortars -the ice cream is that fresh! But the “MooMobile” takes the treats from the barn to the streets. The truck always has its eight staple flavors: cookies and cream, chocolate chip cookie, Dutch chocolate, strawberry, super delicious vanilla, mint chocolate chip, Ozo coffee, and a daily sorbet. What makes these seemingly ordinary flavors better than those from other Colorado ice cream trucks? The finest and freshest ingredients from locals as well as a passionate following.
#14 Denver Cupcake Truck – Denver
Cake Crumbs Bakery owns Denver Cupcake Truck, otherwise known as Clementine, the truck delivering the bakery’s finest cupcakes. The Elvis – a peanut butter, banana, and bacon cupcake – is always one of the first flavors to sell out. The Snowball cupcake is another favorite, with an almond cake, chocolate buttercream, and covered in coconut on top. Cake Crumbs will be approaching its fifth birthday very soon.
#15 Mister Softee – New York City
The grandfather of all ice cream trucks, Mister Softee, had to make this list. Founded in 1956 by brothers William and James Conway in Philadelphia, it has grown to one of the largest soft ice cream franchisers in the U.S. In New York, they can be seen parked at street corners throughout the city. The menu features vanilla and chocolate soft-serve ice cream, as well as chocolate- and cherry-dipped cones.
#16 Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Truck – New York City
The word “artisan” has become so ubiquitous that it has kind of lost its meaning these days. People have abused the term to describe lower-quality products that are undeserving of such a description. But not Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream. This ice cream is made from egg yolks, cane sugar, milk, and cream – how your grandmother used to make it. The first two trucks were launched in 2008, and now there are six active trucks and three brick-and-mortars in Brooklyn and Manhattan serving ice cream, pastries, and coffee. There is a modest list of flavors on the menu, but that is because they are done right. You don’t need to combine chocolate, brownies, coconut, and pretzels here. Try the ginger ice cream, which tastes just like ginger with just enough of a warm kick and actual bits of ginger to chew on.
#17 Cupcakes for Courage – Chicago
In the wake of tragic news, it certainly is courageous to start a food truck venture. But Laura Pekarik, sister of Kathryn Pekarik, knew exactly how to do it. When Kathryn was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s T-cell lymphoma in May of 2010, Laura quickly reacted with a 250-cupcake bake sale, using the profits to help pay for medical costs. The bake sale was so successful that Cupcakes for Courage soon became a regular sight in the streets. The menu rotates daily, with weekly specials such as gluten-free pistachio, chocolate-covered banana, and mama’s java – chocolate cake enhanced with coffee, filled with coffee beans and chocolate mousse and topped with mocha buttercream. There are four everyday flavors: black and white, pink velvet, vanilla on vanilla, and dark chocolate-chocolate.
#18 Chunk-n-Chip Cookies – Orange County, Calif.
Chunk-n-Chip Cookies is a choose-your-cookie, choose-your-ice-cream-filling kind of ice cream sandwich truck. The cookies are soft, gooey, and fresh out of the oven, and the ice cream is handcrafted. You can build your own, or choose from the signature combinations such as Goodber Doober – chocolate chip and chocolate brownie cookies with mint chip and vanilla bean ice cream. The Mumbo Jumbo takes two chocolate brownie cookies and slams them together with rich peanut butter cup ice cream. The Cuba Libre includes snickerdoodle cookies and guava and goat cheese ice cream.
#19 Sweetery NYC – New York City
A self-proclaimed “experimental marketing company and food truck,” the Sweetery NYC truck is not fooling around with what color sprinkles to use. Instead, it is promoting its ability to collaborate with corporate businesses to create mobile marketing campaigns through the use of social media. Since its launch in 2009, Sweetery has created more than 100 marketing events for major brands including American Express, Food Network, Macy’s, and MasterCard. It’s not all business, though; the menu varies with ice cream, yogurt, pastries, cookies, and of course cupcakes. But the signature treat is the Macarella – a scoop of Nutella between two thin coconut macaroon cookies, which were featured on Good Morning America in 2009.
#20 Kara’s Cupcakes Karavan – San Francisco
Kara’s Cupcakes has nine bakeries around Northern California, but there is only one Kara’s Cupcakes Karavan. Kara Haspel Lind, daughter of a dentist, had a difficult time growing up exploring her passion for sweets. But in adulthood, she finally quit her job as an advertising sales executive to attend pastry school. Lind has more than a sweet tooth. She also actively works to give back to her community; last year she donated more than 350,000 cupcakes to multiple charities to help eliminate local hunger. The van can be found throughout the Bay Area with regular cupcakes (sweet s’mores, peanut butter milk chocolate ganache, Kara’s karrot, among others) and filled cupcakes such as fleur de sel, Meyer lemony lemon, and passion fruit.