A version of this article first appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2016.
Editor's Note: On the fourth episode of THE ICE CREAM SHOW, host Isaac Lappert ventures to Los Angeles to taste some of the city's finest ice cream innovations. One of the stops on his tour is LA classic Mashti Malone's, which has been making Persian-style ice cream for almost 40 years. We sat down with the family behind the shop to talk about what it was like.
Many frozen dessert trends have come and gone—Froyo, Dippin' Dots, liquid nitrogen-chilled ice cream, to name a few.
However, Persian-style ice cream and sorbets are eternal.
At least that's what it seems like when you are sitting at one of the tables in Mashti Malone's in Hollywood, leisurely licking the lemon juice and sour cherry syrup off your fat scoop of saffron ice cream topped with icy faloodeh, a rosewater-flavored sorbet originating in Iran marbled with rice noodles.
The shop—sandwiched between Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, located in the same strip mall as the offices of the weekly free adult newspaper, LA Xpress—is about to turn 37 years old, and it is perhaps one of the most underrated food institutions in the city of Los Angeles. At 65 years young, Malone's founder and chef, Mashti Shirvani, still greets every single one of his customers and asks them personally if they enjoyed his ice cream. Whether you are part of a group of teenage girls coming in for chocolate ice cream or an older Persian couple eating cucumber sorbet, the answer to that is always a resounding "yes."
Shirvani's "Turkish Coffee" tastes like standing in front of a coffee grinder, taking in the pleasurable whiffs of freshly roasted beans getting pulverized. The more complex and aromatic "Herbal Snow," made from 15 different herbs and spices, is enough to make you a lifelong fan, if you are into that sort of perfume-that-borders-on-bitters flavor. Not to mention the "Alphonso Mango," or "Organic Green Tea" flavors, which aren't so traditional but still super-addictive nonetheless.
"Less sugar and more flavor is my specialty," Shirvani tells me in his thin Persian accent.
"When you taste my ice cream, you can taste that is natural. I am a chef, so for me it is important to use high-quality products. Sure, they are expensive, like my lavender, which is organic from France, but I don't really care about money, since I sell in volume. I'm happy."
Shirvani makes 1,000 gallons every day. While the shop advertises 40 flavors, he is about to buy a new freezer to hold some of his 60 other experimental flavors, including some made with soymilk and alcohol to keep up with the times.
Shirvani traces his passion for ice cream to when he was a little kid in the streets of Bushehr, Iran. His last name is famous in Iran when it comes to food, since his father owned a kabab restaurant and his uncle had an ice cream shop. He started making ice cream and sharbat—the earliest form of sorbet, often made from sour cherries, according to him—at the latter location. He recounts that when he first started making ice cream, there weren't even electric freezers.
As a student, Shirvani emigrated to the US when the revolution started in Iran in 1979. His first job was as a chef in one of the first Iranian restaurants in LA, which is no longer around. He soon realized that he wanted to focus his life on ice cream instead because of its magical ability to make you instantly feel good upon eating it. "I wanted to be in the happy business," Shirvani says. He then decided to risk it all and buy an existing ice cream shop by the name of Mugsy Malone, of which he adjusted the "Mugsy" part to say "Mashti," since he was dirt-broke at the time and couldn't afford a new sign.
Shirvani tells me that the process of getting Angelenos used to ice cream with rice noodles was not an easy task. But the unique texture of his desserts—weirdly, almost like the texture of powdery, frozen white chocolate chips—and his frugal sign ingenuity eventually proved to be a smashing success. "That decision to fix the sign like that turned out to be a good one," Shirvani says, laughing about it now.
Having been situated in Hollyweird for that long, Shirvani has enough stories involving encounters with celebrities—both A-listers and weirdos—to have his own column in a gossip magazine. In the middle of his life story, he shows me a photo of a Weird Al Yankovic album cover that he appeared on and asks if I know a hip-hop artist by the name of Drama Boy who's coming by later that evening to shoot something at the space.
The shop's cult following shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. Shirvani tells me that he finally found the money to change the original "Mugsy Malone" sign to a brand-new swanky one this year. Mashti Malone has grown into a family operation, with his younger brother Matt jumping in on the daily operations of the place and his daughter studying communications to take over the business when he retires. He has also helped his extended family in Iran to open four ice cream shops similar to Mashti Malone, despite the fact that he's only been back to his home country twice since he immigrated here.
At the end of the interview, Shirvani confesses that he no longer eats as much as ice cream as he used to and that "he now gets full with [his] eyes when making it." Nonetheless, he still absolutely must taste every first batch of a new flavor.
He hands me a stupidly thick,saffron ice cream sandwich, rolled with pistachios and nestled between his housemade "Mashti Wafers," and smiles.