New York City may remember 1977 as the Summer of Sam, when serial killer David Berkowitz reigned terror over the five boroughs. Or a time when the city was a dirty, gritty haven for burgeoning punk rockers and OG hip hop artists.
But it was also the year in which the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory—one of Chinatown's oldest businesses—opened. Although the awning outside the store claims it opened in 1978, it's wrong. Back when vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry were pretty much the full spectrum of ice cream flavors in America, the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory brought Asian flavors of ice cream to the masses.
Despite being perceived as a Western treat, ice cream may have originated in China. Way back in the seventh century AD, King Tang of Shang was eating a food akin to ice cream, made of buffalo milk, flour, and camphor. So, in the scheme of things, plain vanilla may really be the more exotic flavor than, say, lychee ice cream.
And that's how Chinatown Ice Cream Factory treats its ice cream. At the tiny, narrow store, situated on Bayard Street, one of Chinatown's more bustling blocks, the list of "Regular Flavors" includes black sesame, taro, red bean, pandan, and durian.
The "Exotic Flavors" menu? That would include your American basics: rocky road, mint chip, and vanilla fudge.
A long line snakes out of the store on summer days. CICF has been run by the Seid family since opening and is an authentic, Chinese-run enterprise in a neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying. Philip Seid opened the place, and it is now run by his daughter, Christina.
When we visited recently, the crowd lined up as two servers worked mightily to keep up with the incoming orders. Manager Jane Lee, who has been working at CICF for three months, told me that she grew up in Queens but her parents took her to Chinatown every Saturday of her childhood for dim sum. She began working at CICF three months ago, and says, "Lychee is our most popular flavor, but also almond cookie, black sesame. The mango sells well. Most of the time people go for the Asian flavors. Then we have the exotic ones like the durian—the brave will try that flavor." Lee says the customers are a mix of tourists, local kids, and a lot of repeat customers. "Some people just come in and we know exactly what they want."
Owner Christina Seid concurs: lychee is indeed the most popular flavor at CICF. She points out that her father opened the place back when upscale ice cream first became a thing, the era of Häagen-Dazs and Ben and Jerry's. But no one was serving Asian-inspired flavors of ice cream back then. Nowadays, any NYU kid who drunkenly downs some red bean ice cream in their dorm at 2 AM has CICF to thank for it.
As the line begins to wend out the door, one customer who works nearby says, "I've been coming here for a year or two. I only get Zen Butter. It's really good. It's peanut butter with sesame seeds."
Back in my own college days, I remember being absolutely stunned by their black sesame ice cream. It's the sort of subversive flavor that makes one rethink what they know about ice cream as a whole. Trying it again upon my visit, I was in no way disappointed, but it was the pandan that truly blew my mind this time. Delicate and bold at the same time, the flavor is absurdly floral with a citrusy, nutty finish. It's damn hard to encapsulate in words and even harder to forget.
Christina Seid says that although Chinatown is changing—"property in Chinatown has gotten a lot more expensive and there are a lot more hotels and bars"—she is hopeful about CICF's future. That's primarily because CICF appeals to New Yorkers who have long been willing to explore the "unusual." Seid accounts for CICF's longstanding success, in part because, she says, "In New York City, people are more cultured in their food."
"We are not consciously trying to do anything except to be ourselves and run our business efficiently. We are appreciative that our customers continue to love and support our business through the years," she says.
Even if you've never been to Chinatown Ice Cream Factory—or Chinatown at all—you've likely eaten ice cream influenced by it. Chinatown may change, but CICF will always remain as the store that started a revolution.