San Diego ice cream shops are second to none. Of course, with 263 days of sunshine, a proliferation of ice cream seems only natural. This summer, I ate my way through ice cream parlors across the city to bring you the ultimate guide to San Diego’s local cones, cups, sticks, dips, and toppings. It was a sticky job, but someone had to do it!
North Park Creamery, North Park
North Park Creamery | 3041 University Ave., North Park
Offering: Softserve ice cream in cones (waffle, small waffle, medium cake, small cake) and cups; lots of vegan options! They have toppings galore and quite a few different “dips” that you can choose for your cone, Dairy Queen style.
Price: $$$ | $5.95 for a small cake cone, toppings and dips are extra
What I got: I got a churro flavor softserve cone dipped in Reese’s peanut butter shell. There were other fun dips that I wanted equally like salted caramel, nutella, and white chocolate. Brian got a small cup of churro with oreo mix-ins and our total was an eye-bulging $16. We came back a second time and got vanilla and peach cheesecake. While the consistency was creamy perfection, the vanilla was a little bland and the peach flavor started off great but was a little cloying by the end of the cone.
Overall: The soft serve was pretty good and I would go back just to try the novel flavors of shells that you can have your cone dipped in. Other than that, the price would keep me away considering you can get a dipped cone from Dairy Queen for $3.50. Sure, it’s less “cool”, but just as tasty.
Mariposa Homemade Ice Cream, Normal Heights
Mariposa Homemade Ice Cream | 3450 Adams Ave., Normal Heights
Offering: Small batch homemade ice cream, in a range of flavors including some seasonal ones and vegan options. They don’t do toppings, unless you get an ice cream sundae! This San Diego ice cream shop is a small, family owned business – note that they are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays (and all major holidays).
Price: $ | $3.50 for a small cup
What I got: I got a small cup with banana walnut and peanut butter fudge, both of which were delicious, especially the banana ice cream if you like that flavor usually.
Overall: Their ice cream is homemade at the shop which is nice because so many “homemade” places have a different location where it’s made in large batches and brought in. Not Mariposa! This place is a true mom and pop kind of business. It’s in a little shop between a take away pizza joint and a drab strip mall. The neighborhood ambiance is lacking the hip vibes of North Park or University Heights but if you’re already in the area the ice cream is truly a treat.
For lack of a better word, it is less “gummy” than a lot of gelatos. This isn’t necessarily good or bad. (I personally love a gummy ice cream.) But Mariposa tastes like actually homemade ice cream made with ingredients you can find at the supermarket (in a good way). My small cup was also a delightfully unpretentious $3.50. As a bonus, there was no pre-populated 20, 25, 30% tip option to make you feel cheap and mildly uncomfortable. Theirs however, was the only shop that expressly said no dogs allowed inside.
Stella Jean’s Ice Cream, University Heights
Stella Jean’s | 4404 Park Blvd., Ste. b, University Heights
Offering: Small batch, homemade ice cream with experimental flavors like ube+pandesal toffee and mango sticky rice. They have a few different locations in the San Diego area.
Price: $$ | Single scoop is $5.25; $5.75 if you want two flavors in your single
What I got: We went here a couple of times as it is in the neighborhood where we were staying. I got the miso tahini and Thai tea cookie monster and Brian got the brown butter pecan. The next time I got s’mores and guava cream cheese and Brian went back to basics with Madagascar vanilla.
Overall: You can tell a lot about an ice cream place by the flavor and texture in a simple scoop of vanilla ice cream. The vanilla flavor at Stella Jean’s could have been stronger and the ice cream had some ice crystals in it. The ice cream was creamier the first day we tried it so maybe some days are fresher than others? The other flavors were creamy and pretty good (especially the guava cream cheese) but they also had a smattering of ice crystals. The flavors were ambitious with the potential to be awesome but execution was just shy of the bulls eye. Would I go here again? If this was my neighborhood San Diego ice cream parlor then yes, in a heartbeat. If I had to drive here? I’d likely find somewhere closer.
An’s Dry Cleaning, University Heights
An’s Dry Cleaning | 3017 Adams Ave., University Heights
Offering: A small selection of flavors that rotates regularly. Each flavor is creatively named to reflect the “dry cleaner” theme like brocade (chocolate, brownie, ganache) and leather (brown butter, chocolate chip cookie). They don’t offer toppings – the flavors stand on their own!
Price: $$ | $5.95 for a small
What I got: I got cashmere (goat cheese and honey) and Brian got leather. Both flavors were creamy and perfectly balanced and we knew right away we would be coming back for more. What we didn’t know is that our second visit would be the day they were named the 2nd best ice cream in the nation by USA Today. To celebrate, they were offering $2 cups – and closing early for staff appreciation. Respect! We had to try serge (peanut butter, caramel, nutella) which was heaven in a cup although maybe a tad too much caramel for my taste. I also got a scoop of cottondoodle (rice, milk, cinnamon, snickerdoodle) which was cinnamon-y perfection.
Overall: This is San Diego ice cream at its finest! If there is one drawback to An’s it is that the flavors don’t rotate often enough for the number of times I would visit. Which if I lived in San Diego, would be many times per week. If you can stand to eat the same flavor of creamy, gooey, velvety goodness more than once in a week span (it’s a hard knock life!) then An’s is 1000% deserving of their USA Today accolade. I’m not sure what the number 1 place is but if it’s better than An’s I certainly have never been to it.
Aside from their top notch ice cream the fun riff on the former business (the once-upon-a-time “real” An’s Dry Cleaning) makes this little place a tiny gem of a discovery when you walk by and idly wonder why so many people are standing in line for their dry cleaning on a Tuesday evening. Then you see the kids with cones and the adults with bigger cones and gradually realize it’s the end of the world as you know it. Staff there is oh so friendly and will happily give you a sample of literally everything on offer. It makes for longer lines, but when it’s your turn, you’re always happy you waited.
Salt and Straw, Little Italy
Salt and Straw | 1670 India St., Little Italy
Offering: A plethora of the most wild (and loosely interpreted) flavors of homemade ice cream including fun themes like their picnic series that includes fried chicken (cinnamon ice cream with fried croissant pieces), and chocolate potato salad (mustard ice cream with potato chip cookies and chocolate fudge). Salt and Straw is the only place I’ve reviewed that isn’t an original San Diego ice cream parlor. They are from Portland, Oregon and have shops up and down the Pacific coast (and Miami and Las Vegas). They are something of a mini franchise but so delicious that it’s no wonder they’ve expanded beyond their original hometown.
Price: $$$ | Single scoop is $6.50
What I got: I had a child’s half and half (two ping pong sized scoops which was the right amount for a pre-lunch ice cream) of pear with blue cheese and salted, malted, chocolate chip cookie dough. Brian had a scoop of baked brie and fig.
Overall: This ice cream is the epitome of creamy and rich and definitely not for the lactose intolerant! (Although they do offer several vegan options made with coconut milk). Brian couldn’t finish his because it was so rich and in his opinion, a little too sweet. There was quite a lot of fig jam in his scoop but as an ice cream maximalist, I found it to be really enjoyable. My cookie scoop was nothing short of delightful if not expected, but the pear and blue cheese scoop was the clear winner. It certainly didn’t taste like blue cheese – more like pear-y, creamy, and a little tangy but not savory at all. It was amazing and I honestly don’t care what they call it.
Salt and Straw seems to share that sentiment as a lot of their flavors tasted only mildly (if at all) like their named ingredients. (See above mentioned fried chicken and potato salad.) But if one can overlook their descriptive license, you’ll find a whole host of flavors here that you just can’t seem to live without.
Bobboi Natural Gelato, Little Italy
Bobboi Natural Gelato | 2175 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy
Offering: Gelato made in the traditional Italian way using recipes from a chef who studied gelato making in Italy, ooh la la! They have 18 flavors in their shop at all times – traditional flavors and some creative seasonal ones as well as vegan/gf options. A lot of their flavors use local ingredients from San Diego and other areas in California.
Price: $$ | about $6 for a small cup with two flavors. (I had to check my credit card for the price which has tax and tip so the $6 is approximate.)
What I got: I had a small cup with two flavors: Mediterraneo (hazelnut from the Piedmont, San Diego almonds, Santa Barbara pistachios) and salted caramel
Overall: This is really delicious gelato and is a little less sweet than Salt and Straw down the street. It is ultra creamy and a very nice consistency. If you’re in Little Italy and can get only one ice cream serving (sad day) I would choose Salt and Straw because their flavor and texture was a little more on point. But if you like a less sweet ice cream or more understated atmosphere, Bobboi would be the better choice.
Pop Pops Paleta, Little Italy
Pop Pops Paleta | 1740 India St., Little Italy
Offering: All sorts of gourmet ice creams on a stick. They have fruit flavors, cream flavors, and a medley of different dips and toppings you can add.
Price: $$$ | $6 for one popsicle, toppings are extra
What I got: A simple strawberry popsicle that was super refreshing and chock full of strawberry chunks
Overall: This is a fun twist from your standard San Diego ice cream shop. There are several other paleta storefronts in the area so it may be something of a trend. The novelty is short-lived though, given that they are messier to eat than a cup or a cone and an awkward conduit for toppings. My single fruit popsicle cost more than a box of 4 at the grocery store. While it was good, it was definitely not 4 times as good as a store bought pop. To me, the joy in a popsicle is the simplicity of grabbing one for $1.50 from a man with a cart or when the ice cream truck stops in your neighborhood. Some crucial part of that experience gets lost in translation when you elevate it to an ultra-pricey haute dessert.
Sweet Rabbit, Hillcrest
Sweet Rabbit | 401 University Ave., #C, Hillcrest
Offering: A large array of ice cream flavors including classics like cookie dough, mint, and cookies and cream along with more European standbys like banana nutella and ferrero rocher. This father/sons owned shop has several flavors with a Mexican flare like guava, tamarind, and “gansito” featuring the Mexican sweet snack cakes of the same name. They also sell paletas (popsicles) made in the shop.
Price: $ | $3.75 for a single scoop (with two flavors) + 50 cents for paying with credit card
What I got: I went with classic flavors and got a single scoop with half cookie dough and half ferrero rocher. Like Mariposa, their ice cream doesn’t have the ultra rich consistency as some of the other ice cream shops but it also feels like less of a gut bomb after you’re done. 🙂
Overall: This is a good ice cream place if you want something simple and not too rich. I like the way they apportioned my single scoop with two flavors by scooping half into the scoop and filling the rest of the scoop with the second flavor so I truly had one scoop in my cup with two flavors in it versus two large scoops stuffed into a single serving cup like some places do. The Sweet Rabbit decor is bright pink and fun and matches Hillcrest’s colorful rainbow palette. However, the ice cream experience is much more understated than you’d expect from a shop in this vibrant LGBTQ friendly neighborhood.
San Diego Ice Cream Map
Here’s a map showing where the ice cream shops are. You may notice that there aren’t any in the touristy areas like Mission Bay, Seaport Village, or the Gaslamp Quarter. I tried to concentrate on locally owned shops that have a true San Diego vibe versus bigger franchises.
Sadly, we didn’t make it to The Baked Bear, an ice cream sandwich shop in Pacific Beach that was highly recommended by our local friends. Something to look forward to next time!
While this wasn’t my first foray into California ice cream, it was definitely the most fun and delicious! Did I miss any great San Diego ice cream shops that you know? Have you tried any of these? Send me a comment below – I’d love to know what you thought! 😀