If ice cream could talk, it might sound something like Kim Malek.
Her sweet, sugary voice floats through the air like the perfect vanilla cone. It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that she has made her living off of the tasty cold stuff.
Malek runs Portland-based Salt and Straw ice cream parlour with her cousin Tyler Malek, the company’s head ice cream maker (though she thinks his title should be “evil genius”). Trained and accomplished in marketing, Malek had dreamed of opening an ice cream shop since 1996. Nearly five years ago, she convinced the aforementioned evil genius to help her start a little ice cream cart, and from it they scooped their unique array of flavours, from tried and true staples to obscure combinations such as olive oil or pear and blue cheese. The cones and cups proved so popular that a brick and mortar soon followed, and now they operate three shops in Portland, and two in Los Angeles. Known for high-quality ingredients and those not-quite-sure-I’ll-like-it-but-I’ve-got-to-have-it flavours, Salt and Straw has become a place of ice cream worship, and line-ups form out the door even in the rain (as this writer can attest). “At the end of the day, it’s all about being really delicious and being able to experience what’s going on in the Portland, and now LA, food scenes through ice cream,” Malek says. “It’s a fun adventure, and ice cream’s a good way to be able to do that.” Working with resident producers and restaurants in both cities chills a distinctly community feel, and provides an unparalleled authentic taste.
There are permanent flavours on offer, but the team creates some entirely new ones every month, as well, focusing on fresh and local; Portland summer patrons can look forward to a fermentation series, including using the famous restaurant Pok Pok’s drinking vinegars. “We think of it like a restaurant coming up with specials for the month,” Malek explains, adding that over the years Tyler has come up with something like 300 tastes. “We try to think about the range of flavours, from really super yummy approachable ones my five-year-old is going to totally dig, to something that might be a little more experimental, whether it’s cauliflower or something that people maybe haven’t heard of as much, and they’ll want to come in and try it and have that experience. We always try to make sure there’s a blend so that you can always find something you’re going to love and try something you haven’t expected.”
Adding to their already double-scoop business is the Salt and Straw Whiz Bang Bar, set to open in Portland’s new Pine Street Market food hall in April. There, among other city favourites such as Olympia Provisions meat and Hopworks Urban Brewery beers, the Whiz Bang Bar will see Salt and Straw moving away from the hard ice cream in favour of soft serve. “We started thinking about when you were a kid, you have these fond memories of the Dairy Queen, going and getting a soft serve cone, a dipped cone, an ice cream bar, or whatever form it took,” Malek says. “Nowadays as adults, we don’t have a version of that, and we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to recreate that and bring that memory to life with more current flavours and high-end ingredients, and provide a new adult-oriented adventure along those lines?’” For Malek, who says she has never once been sick of ice cream throughout her time in the business, it’s a welcomed blast from the past. “For me personally, that’s kind of more of what my childhood memories are,” she says of soft serve. “It was a really fun to experiment with different flavours. We’re still finalizing the menu, but it’s been a delicious experiment.” As it should be.
Every spring, Malek and her team head to the schools near each of the Salt and Straw locations and talk to the kids about the science of making ice cream, and how they come up with their delicious and outrageous tastes. Then the students have a flavour creation competition; the three winning combinations are put on the Salt and Straw menu, and all sale proceeds go back to that school. The children are, unsurprisingly, often floored by the opportunity to make their own ideal sweet treat. “I always laugh,” Malek says, letting out a bubble-gum giggle. “Because, ‘Yes—someone’s job is to make ice cream. Can you imagine?’”
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