It was high noon in late June in Chinatown on the first really swampy day of the summer. There were a few customers at Lao Sze Chuan. There was nobody in the new Korean barbecue joint except three fat, sweaty white guys. And who the hell could even think of eating in any of the dozen or so hot-pot joints on a day like that?
There was nothing going down in Chinatown.
But wait—what's that crowd of teenagers and others idlers doing down on Wentworth? They'd gathered under the red faux pagoda that is home to Legend Tasty House, an ice cream parlor trafficking in the alluring confection known as rolled iced cream or, as the kids say, stir-fried ice cream. This is a delightful treat popularly enjoyed in Japan, Korea, China, and, most importantly, Thailand. That's where a breakthrough in the dairy arts occurred more than half a decade ago in a Bangkok ice cream shop. More about that later.
First, what is it? The easiest comparison to make for Westerners, it seems, is Cold Stone Creamery. But instead of a marble prep surface, what you have here is a freezing-cold metal pan upon which an ice cream jockey of heroic abilities pours a liquid as if she's making crepes. She adds some kind of fruit, or cookie, or cracker, or sauce and haughtily smashes it with one of two metal spatulas she wields in each fist, then begins rapidly scraping and chopping the mixture until it begins to crystalize and hold shape. With the grace of an interpretive dancer she quickly smoothes and flattens it into a thin square, and—this is the really hypnotizing part—scrapes wide ribbons of ice cream that roll up like scrolls of papyrus. These are placed upright in a cup and garnished with garish combinations of whipped cream, gummies, sprinkles, sauces, fruit, marshmallows, jimmies, and other flair. The base flavors include coffee, mango, strawberry, s'mores, green tea, and, God bless them, durian. And more. I lost myself awhile in the dreamy depths of the avocado, which I've come to suspect is the perfect match for ice cream.
This is a treat made for Instagrammers. You can watch them standing in front of the counter agog, their phones up recording the transfixing ballet. Legend Tasty house opened last January, an inauspicious month for ice cream, but it looks like it's doing just fine now. There's a full menu of savory stuff too—skewers, soups, even oden, which is perfect fuel for January. Not so much in June.
Legend Tasty House—which has a whole-fish hot-pot sister restaurant, Legend Spicy Bar, down the street—invokes the "streets of Hong Kong" on its website. But there'd be no rolled ice cream in China or Chicago, for that matter, if it weren't for a Bangkok dairy disruptor. Friend of the Food Chain and author of Bangkok: Recipes and Stories From the Heart of Thailand, Leela Punyaratabandhu is working on a piece about Thai-style rolled ice cream for a future issue of Dill Magazine.* She explains:
"The method of manipulating ice cream on a cold surface had been around for a long time. You could find it in Korea, Japan, etc.—and Thailand too. But about 6 years ago, a small shop inside a mall in Bangkok started making their ice cream on a steel pan (that very much resembles a commercial pad thai pan, which is a wide, flat carbon steel pan with a short, flared rim) whose temperature registers at minus 30° Celsius. According to the owner of that ice cream shop, this is about 20° lower than the surface on which the same type of ice cream had been made in other countries. This means you get the job done in much less time—about one minute. They called it "Ice Cream Phat" (literally 'stir-fried ice cream'), because the way you prepare it looks like you're "stir-frying" the liquid ice cream base into solid ice cream, and the vessel also looks like a flat stir-fry pan. That shop eventually outgrew their original location and is now operating in over 60 locations throughout Thailand. Lots of copycats these days."
This ice cream is phat.
Legend Tasty House: Next to the fish counter at Mayflower Food, it's the best place in Chinatown to cool off on a hot summer day.
Legend Tasty House
Legend Tasty House, 2242 S. Wentworth, 312-225-8869, legendtastyhouse.com
Legend Spicy Bar, 2358 S. Wentworth, 312-929-2758, legendspicybar.com
*Full disclosure: I'm a contributor to Dill. It's a quarterly that focuses on Asian foodways. Its first issue, which drops Saturday at the Thai Food Festival, is all about noodles.
Correction: This post has amended to correctly reflect the name of Legend Tasty House's sister restaurant. It is Legend Spicy Bar, not Legend Spicy House.