The El Chapo cone at Sweet Jesus, a shark-jumping, lineup-clogged soft-serve ice cream phenomenon just north of King Street West, on John Street, presents like a medical exhibit from the lost causes cabinet of a journeyman Victorian-era surgeon. Bulbous and misshapen, the cone is dipped in what tastes like Dollarama clearance bin chocolate, be-drizzled with spasms of sauce and rolled in deep-fried pork skin. Its most prominent colour is a looming, viruliferous brown.
The experience of eating that cone, which Sweet Jesus promoted around Cinco de Mayo earlier this month, is a lot how I imagine it'd feel to slurp on a stick of freezer-burned margarine dipped in Nestle Quik and week-old bacon drippings. As for the wisdom of celebrating one of Mexico's most beloved national holidays with a paean to the country's most murderous drug lord, I'm slightly less certain, though I do look forward to the launch of Sweet Jesus's Maurice (Mom) Boucher cone this Canada Day.
The El Chapo, like the rest of the soft serve menu at Sweet Jesus, is absurdly popular, if you judge by all the social media postings, not to mention the ever-present lineups. If you can get through the Sweet Jesus queue, which often stretches a full block down John Street, and in through the doors, past the display of Sweet Jesus merch, and past the cash station, with its basket marked "What Would Jesus Tip?" (cost for five cones, after tax and the credit terminal's suggested 18 per cent gratuity: $43), and then beyond the coffee counter and the ice cream cone assembly line, where unsmiling workers (no modifications, please!) roll the company's third-rate soft serve (the stuff at McDonald's is as good or better) through tubs of cheap candy and cookie crumbs and squirt it with squeeze bottle drizzle, in less than an hour, you should count yourself among Sweet Jesus's least unlucky victims.
After all that, of course, almost nobody actually finishes their ice cream. Whether you order the El Chapo, or a Red Rapture, a Cookies Cookies Cookies & Cream, a Krusty the Cone or a Bangin' Brownie (key ingredient: "chocolate cookie cumble," which one presumes is not a typo), a Sweet Jesus cone is not meant for eating so much as it is for showing off on Instagram. Sweet Jesus is a spinoff of La Carnita, the taco chain that started as a viral marketing project of One Method, the cool kid King West advertising firm. They're smart, those One Method folks.
My friends and I had about five bites each and then tossed the lot into Sweet Jesus's garbage bin. Maybe we just weren't ready to let Sweet Jesus into our hearts. Maybe we weren't yet ready to be saved.
Until that happens, I feel it's my duty to save as many people as possible from the ice cream at Sweet Jesus. Happily, it's an ideal time to do that, as Toronto is in a quality ice cream boom. Here's my look at some of the best new(ish) shops around town.
Scoop Shop by Sweet Sammies
Every neighbourhood needs a tiny, top-quality scoop shop like this one on Dundas West, near Palmerston, where there are typically around a dozen different flavours , each one made, according to the chalkboard menu, "From scratch with ❤."
There was an excellent Ontario strawberry ice cream when I stopped in a few weeks ago, all super-creamy texture and vivid-tasting strawberry chunks, as well as a superbly flavourful hazelnut and a toasted marshmallow chocolate chip, among other, mostly classic flavours. They were also scooping the richest, most custardy vanilla I've had in recent memory. It tasted resolutely honest: like good cream, egg yolks, sugar and vanilla, heated into custard and churned through a salt-and-ice-cooled hand crank bucket, the last part of which I'm sure it wasn't, but anyway. It tasted just the way your homesteading great-grandmother might have done it if she opened an ice cream shop. You ought to go.
808 Dundas Street West (at Palmerston Avenue), sweetsammies.ca
The three-location empire's Kensington Market storefront specializes in vegan ice creams and naturalist flavours: the wasabi and ginger tastes like wasabi, and ginger, while the strawberry and rhubarb tastes like nothing more than those two things.
The lychee ice cream, like many of Sweet Olenka's vegan offerings, is built not on dairy cream but coconut milk, which you might think would make for a thin, limp base and a Caribbean-tasting backnote. It doesn't. It is soft and remarkably dense, a titch closer in texture to sorbet than ice cream, sure, but still utterly nice.
225 Augusta Avenue (at Baldwin Street), sweetolenkas.ca
If neither of those work for you, be sure to try the fantastic gelati at The Cheese Boutique, in Etobicoke, the very well-made ice creams and sorbetti at stalwart Ed's Real Scoop, with three locations, or the top-drawer scoops at Kekou Gelato, with locations on Queen Street and on Baldwin Street, which might be the best in town.
Death in Venice
Chef Kaya Ogruce's sateen-textured gelati often tip toward oddball flavours. He has offered a "chocolate, crisp cricket and mealworm" creation in recent months, as well as caramelized eggplant and tahini, roasted parsnip and maple syrup, and pecorino-porcini.
If those aren't quite your speed, he does plenty of more straight-ahead sorts. His vegan pina colada is wonderful, flavoured with coconut, lemongrass and rum-soaked pineapple in a snowy-white, mid-weight base, and the peanut butter and feuilletine (that's the French word for croissant crumbs, for the uninitiated) is as stupidly good as it sounds. The ginger and carrot was beautifully flavoured, if a rare Death In Venice gelato with a touch of icy texture; far better the smoked hay and goat's milk (it is sort of brilliant), or the combination that won Mr. Ogruce Chopped Canada's $10,000 prize last month: his ricotta, rosemary, lemon and honey, which is sublimely tangy and creamy, with bits of aromatic peel inside.
536 Queen Street West (at Ryerson Avenue, inside the Constantinople Bakery), deathinvenice.ca
The ground-breaking King West bakery (disclaimer: earlier this year I worked on a cookbook proposal with owner Andrea Mastrandrea, which we didn't pursue) installed a soft-serve machine recently, which it fills with deliciously whacked-out gelato bases, one single flavour at a time.
Recent offerings have included Spanish ham, chocolate and olive, and anise-studded cornbread, which tastes like Southern Italy's answer to cereal milk. Earlier this week, they were trying out a fantastic (if very sweet) amarena cherry flavour, which you could order straight-up in a cup, or drowned, affogato-style, with good espresso.
609 King Street West (at Portland Street), fornocultura.com
The deliciously ridiculous
Seven Lives Paleteria
This cheery satellite to Kensington Market's superb SoCal taqueria opened just last week, and so I had a mind at first to give it a miss while it worked out the kinks. I'm glad I didn't. The Mexican-style ice creams and floats here are nearly as fun and spectacularly garish as the ones at Sweet Jesus, except these ones you're definitely going to want to eat.
If you'd like to keep it simple, go for the pineapple soft serve, which is properly smooth-textured and has exactly the same sweet-tart-tropical taste as the canned pineapple juice that many of us grew up with; it's a cup of frozen genius.
The mango soft serve is also great, though even better to have that in the form of a Mangonata, which adds the pickled fruit and chili powder mix called chamoy, as well as mango chunks and a chamoy-dipped candied tamarind straw. Another standout: the horchata con tuna, a float of sorts combining spice-kissed rice milk with chopped, toasted walnuts and deep-purple, tequila-infused prickly-pear sorbet. This place is a must-try.
72 Kensington Avenue (at Baldwin Street), @sevenlivesto
Bang Bang Ice Cream
I started hearing the blowback a few months ago, as ice cream hounds, many of them frustrated by this Ossington Avenue ice cream sandwich emporium's often two-hour lineups, complained that Bang Bang wasn't really all that great. I'm sorry to report that the blowback looks like a classic case of tall-poppy syndrome. The doubters are absolutely wrong.
Who could not love a couple scoops of perfectly made pink lemonade and raspberry ice cream inside a pair of ginger cookies? How could anyone turn up their nose at Bang Bang's exquisite coconut mango pudding ice cream, topped with warm coconut sticky rice and set inside an eggy, made-to-order Hong Kong waffle? I'd even brave a Friday evening lineup for another one of those.
There were 31 flavours the last time I went there, from the classics to more inspired creations ("Maltease Me," "Love Oolong Time," "Bellwoods Beer and Brown Bread"). If you're smart, you'll go in the afternoon (the shop is open from 1 p.m.) instead of after dinner. I managed to get in and out, arms loaded with awesome, in 15 minutes flat.
93 Ossington Avenue (at Argyle Street), bangbangicecream.com