The Mill Avenue area surely must be approaching a critical mass of frozen dessert purveyors. As of a couple of weeks ago, on the short quarter-mile strip there are now six shops exclusively offering chilly sweets. Of the six, half of them offer hand-scooped ice cream sandwiched between fresh-baked cookies.
With artisan ice cream shops around town offering them (resulting in a tasty summer battle), it looks like the humble ice cream sandwich will be this year's hot treat. But as we learned last time, the devil's in the details for such a simple treat. Who comes out on top in one crowded arena?
In One Corner: Cookiez on Mill, 514 S Mill Ave (at 5th St), Tempe, 480-557-7051
The Set-Up: Cookiez is the old guard of Mill Avenue ice cream, around enough years to almost count as being there since time immemorial. The vibe in Cookiez is definitely indie, reminiscent of the days before Mill was all red brick and ficus trees. While a small variety of beverages are available, the feature at Cookiez is the ice cream sandwiches, with one of 17 ice creams between your choice of 11 cookies. Cookiez's cookies are thin and wide, at least six inches across. If you're on your own, go for the ($3) half-size option; the full-size sandwich is a generous serving for two.
The cookies at Cookiez take center stage, with the ice cream tubs' labels showing the budget house brand from Smart & Final. The ice cream is a little soft for the cookies, leading to a mild case of the dreaded Sandwich Squish Syndrome near the last few bites. But, since the ice cream is smaller than the wide cookies, it's easy enough to take a bite of ice cream that squished out, immediately followed by a bite of bare cookie. It would be nicer to not deal with it at all, but it works well enough.
In the Next Corner: Slickables, 699 S Mill Ave (in The Brickyard on Mill).
The Set-Up: Slickables is the newest addition to the flock of dessert shops on Mill, opening just a couple of weeks ago. When proprietors Sam Chang and Tina Chau went on a cross-country expedition to find the ideal location to open an ice cream sandwich shop, they found the answer was less than 200 yards from an established shop with a similar menu. This was met with mild derision from Chow Bella readers. A step inside reveals a bright, cheerful interior, somewhere in between the pastels of a Pinkberry Frozen Yogurt and the warm woods of Sprinkles Cupcakes. Sam Chang takes center stage, welcoming you and describing the products with the cadence of an enthusiastic carnival barker inviting you to step right up.
When we first saw the generous scoop of ice cream between the two thicker, smaller cookies than Cookiez has, we reached for extra napkins. An epic sandwich squish appeared imminent. The first bites were taken at a diagonal, only biting one cookie or the other. One of the tasters went for it with a big chomp. Much to everyone's surprise, the sandwich stayed completely intact, with zero squish. It turns out Chang and Chau realized that if the cookies are exactly as soft as the ice cream, the Squish Syndrome disappears. It was surely a challenge for them, but it paid off. While we're puzzled at the offering of mass-market Dreyer's ice cream as a "premium" product, the cookies themselves are certainly primo stuff. At the bargain price of $2 for two cookies with a nicely sized scoop of ice cream, nobody was complaining about the ice cream not being fancy.
The Set-Up: Sparky's was once a Cold Stone Creamery, but since dropped its franchise and went independent. The ice cream prepared on a marble slab is still the main attraction, with flavors you won't see at Cold Stone such as maple bacon, and dark chocolate-raspberry-habanero. A self-serve frozen yogurt section was added in response to the arrival of Mojo Yogurt and Red Mango. And of course, ice cream sandwiches are available. If they start making popsicles it's going to be like all of the other places rolled into one convenient shop.
Even though it's almost one-stop shopping, after trying the ice cream sandwich, we thought they should stick to doing one thing well. The soft ice cream didn't stand a chance against the crispy cookies they baked, leading to severe Squish Syndrome. Three fourths of the way through the sandwich, there was no ice cream left between the cookies. Tasters who didn't opt to use the thoughtfully included spoon became a sticky mess.
And the Winner Is: Slickables, no contest. Sparky's ice cream sandwich seemed more like a half-assed afterthought. Cookiez does have a certain nostalgic charm for those who remember Mill Avenue's days gone by, but the new kid in town has both a top-notch product and costs a third less than the competition.