What do Unicorn Poop, Black Magic, and Monkey Business have in common?
They are all ice cream flavors at Milk Lab, a Cary treat shop that specializes in Thai rolled ice cream, a street-food treat that's popular in Thailand and Vietnam.
Our food scene is exploding, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that we'd be spoiled for choice when it comes to sating our summertime cravings for frozen desserts. But still, it's a pleasant surprise to see just how far we've come from scoops and sundaes. We're not saying you should give up your neighborhood ice cream shop, but summer's scorching temperature is the perfect excuse for ordering beyond the scoop.
Milk Lab's flavors of Thai rolled ice cream may be unconventional, but co-owner Bin Chen uses top-notch ingredients and a house-made ice cream base to deliver a quality rendition. Once you pick your flavor, a liquid ice cream base is poured onto a frozen stainless-steel surface and topped with ingredients like Fruity Pebbles and caramel sauce (Unicorn Poop); pineapple chunks, pineapple puree, and activated coconut charcoal, (Black Magic); or Nutella and banana slices (Monkey Business). Once the ice cream starts to freeze, it's smoothed, scraped, rolled, and artfully arranged into cups for you to customize with unlimited toppings such as fresh fruit, nuts, or Pocky Sticks.
Raleigh Rolls, located in the Morgan Street Food Hall, is also getting in on the Thai rolled ice cream trend, with flavors like Grandma's Nanner Puddin'. A vanilla ice cream base is mixed and rolled with bananas and vanilla wafers, then topped with wafers, sliced bananas, and whipped cream to mimic the flavors of the classic Southern dessert.
Paleteria and ice cream shop Vida Dulce is also putting its stamp on Thai rolled ice cream by serving it in a house-made waffle taco shell. But the real draws here are the paletas. The profusion of ice cream and paletería shops in Mexico, including one owned by Eric Torres's grandfather, inspired him to open Vida Dulce in Cary.
His homemade paletas come in more than sixty flavors, including both dairy- and fruit-based varieties. Unlike the usual American popsicles, which are commonly made with artificial flavors and processed sugars, paletas are prepared using natural ingredients such as fresh fruits, spices, and nuts. Look for standbys like chocolate, coconut, and pineapple, as well as unique flavors such as horchata—a milky, iced Mexican beverage made with rice—or carrot yogurt, which gets its exceptionally satisfying texture from crushed pecans, cranberries, and finely grated carrots.
The fruit paletas are water-based (and vegan) and include flavors like mango, blueberry, and the ultra-refreshing soursop, a bright green, spiky fruit native to the Caribbean that tastes like strawberries and pineapple.
In Durham, LocoPops also offers a diverse line-up of water- and cream-based paletas. Owner Summer Bicknell spent three months in Mexico learning the proper craftsmanship for producing paletas using fresh fruit purees and unique flavor combinations.
Bicknell brought back several traditional recipes to add to her menu and dreamt up a few of her own. Distinctive flavors like chocolate brownie, Mexican chocolate, and mojito are year-round fixtures, while guest stars like Fluffernutter and watermelon-ginger limeade appear seasonally. Bicknell uses all-natural produce to ensure that all her fruits and vegetables are free of toxins; she sources ingredients locally when possible, such as peaches and spearmint from Funny Girl Farm in Durham.
Even staples like ice cream sandwiches are getting a gourmet upgrade. At Raleigh bakery-cafe lucettegrace, owner Daniel Benjamin riffs on the classic using his perennially popular macarons as a base. Benjamin makes a larger version of the macaron shell, a delicate French cookie made of egg-whites, sugar, and finely ground almonds. Typically, macarons contain a piped-in filling, but it turns out they're a fine match for scoops of Benjamin's house-made strawberries-and-cream or chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream, too.
Bittersweet, a downtown Raleigh cocktail and dessert bar, incorporates both booze and sugar into its ice cream sandwiches. The Salty Chipwich features a sweet and savory combination of chocolate-chip-sea-salt cookies that clasp house-made vanilla ice cream, rolled in bourbon caramel corn. If you're thinking that this sounds like a stoner's dream, you're right. Owner Kim Hammer says it was inspired by off-duty line cooks who came in one night with a serious case of the munchies. The labor-intensive dessert takes three days to make, allowing ample time for the dough to rest and freeze, and has been such a hit that Hammer has had to enforce a two-sandwich-per-customer limit.
"I just really love desserts that change as you eat them and let you interact in a lot of different ways," Hammer says. "It tells us to focus on what we are eating and enjoy the experience instead of just unconsciously shoveling food into our bodies."
Unless you've got the munchies.