Tara Burghart Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 9:01AM
I knew that I had arrived at just the kind of quirky ice cream shack that I love when I walked up to the window where you place your order at Ollie’s Frozen Custard in Sycamore. There, behind yellow tape usually reserved for a construction scene, the face of Ollie’s mustachioed founder was being re-created in brickwork on a new patio in front of the store. Priceless!
Why did I drive 30 minutes west to check out a frozen custard shop?
The giveaway for an Oberweis gift card, in which readers named their favorite ice cream flavor, inspired such a great response that I decided to start a new, occasional feature this summer: The Ice Cream Diaries.
To create this hard-hitting piece of journalism, I’ll drive around the suburbs and northern Illinois checking out ice cream places, taking my toddler and husband along as taste testers. It’s a tough assignment, but one I’ll take on for my dear readers.
I come from an ice cream-loving family (my grandpa owned a dairy, complete with a soda fountain), and summer and ice cream go together like winter and hot cocoa in my mind (The Hot Cocoa Diaries?).
Since I’ve always been a fan of road trips, it’s worth a 30- or 40-minute drive so that my hubby, our ice cream-loving daughter (“Cone! Cone!” she demands) and I can create a sweet family memory of standing outside in the warm night air, deciding among the unique ice cream creations these locally-owned places always seem to offer.
So I hope this turns into a fun feature that generates some discussion about your own favorite locally-owned ice cream spot and inspires you to try a new one before Labor Day.
The very first stop on my tour was Ollie’s Frozen Custard in Sycamore, in DeKalb County.
Frozen custard, of course, is very much like ice cream. But it’s made with egg yolks and a higher percentage of butterfat, in addition to cream and sugar. It also contains less air and is served at a higher temperature than ice cream. And yes, I had to look all that up.
Ollie’s, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, operates out of a modest building just off a main drag of DeKalb Avenue/Route 23 in Sycamore, just a few blocks from its boundary with DeKalb.
You walk up to one window to order, and pick up at another. For flavors, you can always count on vanilla and chocolate and at least one flavor of the day. An employee told me the most popular flavors are black raspberry and butter pecan. (If those aren’t being served during your visit, you can usually buy various sizes of pre-packed tubs to take home.)
In addition to a simple cone, you can choose from sundaes, milkshakes and malts; drug-store style sodas; green cows; arctic blasts (like a DQ blizzard) and floats. You can also order “custard pies” in advance.
Prices are reasonable. A single cone costs $1.60, an old-fashioned soda $3.06, a single-topping sundae $3.15 and an arctic blast $3.97. (I even love the odd cents amounts!) We visited on a hot weekend afternoon and walked right up to the window. I have read that the line can stretch around the building on Friday and Saturday nights, but the Ollie’s fans who have posted that stat swear the line moves quickly.
My husband was intrigued enough by the name to try a chocolate Boston Shake, which includes a small sundae on top. He said it was great, if a tad rich. (Imagine that!) I ended up with an old-fashioned cherry sundae, which consisted of creamy, rich vanilla custard covered in cherry pie filling. It was delicious, although I made the mistake of asking the employee about the most popular flavors after I had ordered. Oh well, I’ll just have to return to try a scoop of black raspberry.
As much as I love ice cream, I’m not very creative when it comes to coming up with my own unique sundaes or blizzards. So I admire the people who submit named creations for Ollie’s New Item Contest. (For instance, the “black bird” involves chocolate custard, hot fudge, oreo and banana.) The employees choose a new addition for a “winner’s list” about once a month, after gathering for a taste test of all the recent submissions.
Ollie’s brick face has been finished since my first visit, and so there are two tables out front on that patio. You can also head to the back of the building, where there is one large picnic table on a paved area and another six sitting on grass underneath the trees.
Ollie’s met all my requirements for a road trip-worthy ice cream spot: A hand-scrawled menu, unique offerings and friendly service. My family will certainly be making the 30-minute drive there again this summer -- even if black raspberry isn’t on the menu that day.
You can check Ollie’s website for a calendar that lists the flavor of the day, as well as doublecheck the hours. But in general, from June through August it is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. In the fall and spring, it opens at 11:30 a.m. daily and stays open until 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Ollie’s closes in the winter.
What about you, Go West readers? What’s your favorite ice cream or custard shop? Is it located in the Chicago area, or someplace else where you have lived? What makes it so special?