Van Leeuwen’s is a much-beloved ice cream shop of the Pace University student body. Our local location is in the aesthetically pleasing neighborhood of seaport, but it is an NYC chain that spans throughout lower Manhattan and a few spots in Brooklyn. The brand also proudly serves a variety of vegan flavors, some simply vegan options of their non-vegan flavors, and some available only in non-dairy form. For a school, and city for that matter, with a sizable vegan and dairy-free population, this certainly helps its popularity.
It is this popularity that has caused me to hold off on taking a visit intended for critical analysis. Van Leeuwen’s has been my go-to spot for a cone for a while now and has won a near and dear place in my heart. I worried that approaching a visit critically would be fraught with too much bias. Or worse, I would find something unpleasant when rose colored glasses were traded for clear ones. But the requests for a Van Leeuwen post kept coming in, and I knew the longer I waited, the harder it would be. And so one fateful day I set out to lay my heart on the line and eat some ice cream.
The factors all seemed to have aligned that day to put me in prime ice cream eating mood: it was a cloudless sunny afternoon with the first bits of warmth creeping into the air. I had just had a full day of rehearsal for Dark of the Moon and had a short break before I was going to see my friends in the other Pace main stage of the season, Machinal. What better way to celebrate a day of theatre and beautiful weather than some ice cream? There were also some intriguing seasonal specialty flavors at the time (as Van Leeuwen’s always has a few specials in both vegan and non-vegan categories for a couple months at a time, always giving you something to go back and try). After a well-rounded and satisfying burrito bowl, I ambled down the cobblestone streets of seaport for my sweet treat of the day.
One of the first things you will notice in a Van Leeuwen’s outfit is their clean white interior. Their style is reminiscent of the classic old scoop shop, but with a distinctly modern twist with the addition of marble countertops adding a sleek finish to the whole affair. The second thing is the smell. One of the best parts of going to an ice cream shop rather than just pounding a pint at home is the sweet smell of cold. Yes, cold is not technically a scent, but go to your local ice cream shack, take a whiff of what lies behind the glass divider and try and tell me that is not the smell, at least in part, of cold. Of course on top of that I there are wafts of cream and sugar mixed in to complete the ice cream smell, but there is something about a place that makes its name in freezing its product that houses a chilly smell that I have to say is one of my favorites. The quality of the smell can also be telling to the quality of products. Too sharp of a cold rush can often mean a texture that isn’t quite creamy enough. Not smell enough at all can tell me that it will be weak in both flavor and texture. A place like Van Leeuwen’s, with the perfect punch packed into your nostrils at any given moment tantalizing you with subtle sweetness just hinting at what’s to come, is the pinnacle of this scent for me. It lingers not just during your initial moments in the store but throughout your visit, the nose seemingly never getting accustomed to such an intoxicating smell.
This scent led me to the ice cream counter where tubs of ice cream lay waiting for me to go through endless tasting spoons to find one to suit my fancy for the day. One can do this (semi) guilt-free here because they use metal tasting spoons that get washed and reused rather than plastic ones that get thrown away. Luckily, I had a specific palate of flavors in mind for tasting that day, and only three spoons were needed. The winter flavor specials at the time were Vegan Chocolate Citrus Cake, Vegan Cherry Heartbeat, Classic Mocha Cookie Crumble, and Classic Chai Sticky Toffee Pudding. As I am not typically one to go for fruity flavors in my ice cream, I did not go down the cherry heartbeat route (though I have had their vegan cookie crumble strawberry jam due to a friend’s recommendation and ever since it has called out to me from the menu every time I return). This left me with the other three specials for sampling. Whenever I get a cone I always, always, get two scoops consisting of two different flavors. I am a creature of variety, and more dominantly, indecision. Having only one flavor at a time is what you do at home. A cone is meant for the joys of flavor construction. However, with three flavors and two scoops to decide between, there was work to be done and a decision to be made.
Luckily, there is one flavor of ice cream I absolutely never order and have never understood, whose presence in the options before me made my decision easier: coffee. I drink coffee almost every day. I love it. Give me a cappuccino with a nice dessert any night of the week. But coffee flavored desserts are a different story. There is something about the flavor of those beans that I don’t want anywhere near my sweet treats. Coffee ice cream consumption makes me feel like worlds are colliding in the most unpleasant fashion. And it’s not that I have a problem with the flavor of coffee being cold! I love an iced coffee, even a Coffee Coolatta from Dunks’ (even if they now call it Frozen Iced Coffee, it’s still a Coolatta to me!). But the second it gets put into any form resembling ice cream I am out. Perhaps a coffee ice cream will change my mind one day, but for now I will keep the flavor in beverage form to be sipped alongside a slice of cake or cookie.
Therefore, although there were cookies crumbled throughout, Mocha Cookie Crumble was out. That left me with Vegan Chocolate Citrus Cake and Classic Chai Sticky Toffee Pudding. Normally, these two flavors would have been put in a cone as previously discussed in other ice cream adventures. But that day when asked the “cup or cone” question, my mouth said cup. I don’t know why. It’s not like the day was hot and I was worried about the melting factor. Or that I knew the cones to be bad. On the contrary, I have found Van Leeuwen’s cones to be quite tasty. Perhaps I wanted the control of a spoon to get the full experience of the two flavors. I am truly unsure. But into a cup the two scoops went, and I took them outside to eat.
On top was the Chocolate Citrus Cake, with the base of intense chocolate and spots of grapefruit, orange, and lemon marmalade-layered gluten-free sponge throughout. As I scooped up a well-constructed bite with a good ratio of cake and base I could smell the citrus emanating from the cake bits. This scent translated into the perfect burst of light citrus in a rich chocolate background. The texture of the cake was perfectly moist, in part from the juices of the fruits infused into it, and perfectly played with the texture of the ice cream for a cake and ice cream extravaganza. This was just enough of a citrusy kick to bring something interesting to a chocolate flavor that had legs enough to stand on its own, but was brought to another level with the addition of the cake. And being vegan and gluten-free certainly did not hold it back at all – the ice cream was just as thick and creamy as any dairy-full kind and full of decadence.
Chai Sticky Toffee Pudding was next. Every part of that flavor description excited me. The unique sweetness of chai, a sticky sweet bread mixed throughout a spiced ice cream base. After the booming success of chocolate citrus cake, I was ready for my high expectations to be met with this flavor that seemed to hit all the right boxes. Yet as I explored it, there was something that just wasn’t quite right. The ice cream itself was good in terms of texture, though the flavor was a little lighter than I expected. What seemed to really throw me was the texture of the sticky toffee pudding. There was not so much breadiness to be found mixed throughout, but ripples of sticky goo that did not quite capture the chai flavor I was looking for, and felt odd and slick on the tongue. This flavor was not the hit I had hyped it up to be. Though perfectly edible, I wished that I was ending my cup on the high note of the chocolate citrus cake rather than the confusing chai.
So where does Van Leeuwen’s stand after all this? I would still call it one of the best ice cream shops in the city. Yes, the sticky toffee pudding flavor did not quite hit the mark, but the well-rounded perfection of the chocolate citrus cake made up for that. And when I think of all of the hit flavors I have had there, vegan and not, I always feel enticed to go back for more. On top of that, the store itself is a pleasing environment that also does its best to be good to the environment, which I can always get behind. As we enter another season with new flavors for the tasting, I am sure I will be back soon. And if you find yourself in the vicinity of a location on any of these beautiful spring days that are increasingly occurring, I encourage you to step in and try some of their flavors that have always been a hit to me, such as their salted caramel, honeycomb, PB marshmallow crunch, or vegan/gluten-free cookies & cream caramel swirl.