What would an eclipse taste like?
When Tyler Malek set out to answer that question, he filled a charcoal waffle cone with edible gold, marshmallow fluff and ginger-spiced turmeric-tinted soft serve. He encased that sugary miracle in a pop-rock-dusted black sesame magic shell.
The combination elevates the form of ice cream. But Malek has loftier goals for his creation in mind— he aims for the eclipse-inspired sweet treat to “push you to consider what exists, what doesn’t exist, and what might exist after totality.”
Malek is the magician in charge of flavors at Salt & Straw, Portland’s legendary ice cream shop that after six years still entails a 20-minute wait. He tells stories in ice cream and creates complete culinary experiences priced for little more than a cup of coffee.
“We start with a story we want to tell with flavor,” explains Malek, describing his process of translating ideas, emotions, locations or history into sweet cool creamy scoops. “Then we create something abstract that provokes the senses in multiple ways.”
Often, the story is about local food. Each of Salt & Straw’s locations feature classic flavor combinations, using nearby producers. “Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper” is made from local Oregon Berries. “Black Olive Brittle With Goat Cheese” is served up in California. He has made bone marrow ice cream with bourbon-smoked Oregon cherries.
Sometimes he translates gustatory experiences and taste memories. One seasonal special included “Salted Caramel Thanksgiving Turkey,” a turkey fat caramel ice cream, with caramelized onions and fried turkey skin brittle.
Malek admits that his flavors can seem intimidating. He originally called his creations ice cream for adults. He’s learned along the way that kids are equally fanatical about his some-times salty, sour or whimsical works. Even if the outcome is high concept art and no matter how far the flavor goes, the canvas is simple drippy sweet creamy mouthwatering joy.
I tried some flavors in Salt & Straw’s October “Spooktacular” series. “Dracula’s Blood Pudding” is an elegantly smooth chocolaty cream, gently aromatic with sweet spices, and enriched with pigs blood. It sounds outrageous until you realize that sanguinaccio dolce is a traditional Italian chocolate pudding thickened with blood.
“Freckle and Hyde” was inspired by a line from the book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and designed with ingredients that might replicate the experience of taking the transforming potion. The result: sour cranberry sorbet and bitter melon sherbet, hand-packed in layers to create a careful balance of fright and flavor that was both delicious and disturbing.
“The Great Candycopia” is more conventionally appealing as a salted butterscotch ice cream crammed with all, yes all, your favorite Halloween candies—snickers, whoppers, heath bars, and peanut butter cups—all homemade.
“Ice cream is the only food we have the opportunity to sample all these taste sensations and have conversation and do it for free,” says Malek.
In each of the parlors he runs with his cousin, Kim Malek, sampling is encouraged. With all the exotic and bold flavors, Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons stays the most popular.
The cousins run four Salt & Straw parlors in Portland, five in LA, and one in San Francisco, with Seattle and San Diego opening this winter. While Salt & Straw remains a West Coast phenomenon for now, the rest of the country can order online or buy from a few retailers they call friends, such as salt-connoisseur Mark Bitterman’s The Meadow salt shops.
Another friend is Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group’s ever-growing empire includes Shake Shack. This year, Meyer invested in Salt & Straw to help them shore up their operations.
Salt & Straw is expanding, yet intends to keep the model that has worked so far, with each location telling its own local stories.