THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREEZE : Here's the Skinny on Dippin' Into O.C.'s Ice Creams and Yogurts

Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

The 18th-Century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin called ice cream the most perfect and wonderful of all desserts, and he never even tasted cookies and cream. He never tasted frozen yogurt, either, if you can trust history. I wonder how he would have enjoyed a flavor like peanut butter cup, heaped halfway to the ceiling with Reese's Pieces.

Personally, I like almost anything frozen for dessert, although there is no way you'll ever get me to admit that yogurt has the rich, smooth taste of premium ice cream. How could it? Four fluid ounces of nonfat yogurt has about 100 calories, around a third the number in a like amount of premium ice cream. But don't be taken in by all the hype, either. When a product that calls itself "lite" ice cream tells you it is 90% fat free, remember that it is also 10% fat. And that those rich, eye-catching toppings you see in yogurt stores can contain as many or more calories as a small scoop of ice cream.

A limited tasting of ice creams and yogurts in Orange County yielded several good varieties of each. The only thing I would have liked more of is the hand-churned type of ice cream I found at Irvine's White Mountain Creamery.

It isn't just that this was the best of the ice creams tasted. It is more that ice cream is such a homey comfort food, and there is something warm and reassuring about eating a scoop that isn't mass produced.

The 10 local parlors that follow are places to experience a mind-numbing variety of ice creams, yogurts and frozen desserts. Of course, this selection (in no particular order) is only the tip of the iceberg, but we've tried to make it representative of what is out there. So without further ado, here's the, er, scoop.

Thrifty Drug Store: Hand pack it in a holographic carton, make it sound like Swedish ambrosia or use fresh litchi nuts straight from China in the mix, and you still won't find a better value than the humble 35-cent cylinder scooped up in any Thrifty Drug Store. (Although a few people around here would argue in favor of the huge 50-cent cone of various Carnation flavors served at Clark Drug's two Orange County locations, in Mission Viejo and Westminster.) Let's face it. In this age of rampant inflation, Thrifty's bargain cone proves that there is hope for us all.

So how does it taste? Well, according to my mini-panel of experts (OK, a couple of friends--but who doesn't consider himself an expert on this subject?), pretty darn good. The best flavors sampled were rocky road, with a slightly bitter chocolate taste that some might call sophisticated, and butter pecan, with generous chunks of pecan throughout. The chocolate has a bittersweet flavor that I like, but the vanilla is a little disappointing; you can't really taste the vanilla essence.

Still, at these prices, how can you complain?

Thrifty Drug Store, 34101 Doheny Park Road, Dana Point (and multiple Orange County locations). Open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Single scoop, 35 cents; double, 65 cents. (714) 496-2700.

Ice Palace: This bright, Deco-style shop, a new addition in Huntington Beach's stunning Pierside Pavilion, serves homemade gelato, the Italian-style ice cream so wildly popular with professionals and Europhiles alike.

Gelatos are denser than conventional ice creams, often less than 30% air, resulting in an ultra-smooth texture that has its boosters and critics. Ice Palace is actually an Italian company, with two stores in Italy and two in California. Manager Bryan Seti rotates his 40-odd flavors, and look for ones with Italian names like tiramisu, really a caramel coffee mix; torrone, a candied almond flavor, and baci, made with chocolate and hazelnut. There is an array of delicious sorbets, lemon, pineapple and apricot, all made with fresh fruit purees, and novelty flavors too numerous to mention. It's an eggy, intensely flavored product, and the variety is both impressive and imaginative. Look for this import to be around for a long, long time.

Ice Palace, 300 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach. Open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday till midnight. Single scoop, $1.60; double, $2.10. (714) 374-0241.

Gelato Classico: You need a narrow waist to squeeze into this tiny Corona del Mar ice cream parlor, one of the most popular places on all of Pacific Coast Highway. This gelato--usually anywhere between 14 and 20 exotic flavors--is made in San Francisco and trucked in but are always fresh because of the high turnover.

This proved the most controversial ice cream tasted. One Laguna Niguel aficionado thinks it is to die for. Another describes the texture as "kinda like glue, or maybe rubber cement." Personally, I find it a bit too dense.

But the flavors here are all good, and some are even terrific. Best for my money is the coconut macadamia nut, loaded with whole macs and full of intense coconut taste. Caramel pecan has a luxurious ribbon running through the center. Bavarian mint is minty, chocolaty and refreshing. I can't say much about the vanilla bean, except that you see the tiny flecks of vanilla more than you taste them. And as for the "lite" flavors--94% fat free--well, you might as well have yogurt.

Gelato Classico, 2756 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. Open Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday till midnight. Single scoop, $1.80; double, $2.50. (714) 720-1628.

Grandma's: Even the wallpaper is peppermint stick at this Seal Beach institution, where owner E. Betsy Thompson sells an array of ice cream, candies and homemade goodies to do any fantasy grandma proud.

Most of the ice cream sold here is Carnation, and tastes creamier than you have a right to expect from such a large commercial producer. Vanilla Swiss almond, essentially vanilla ice cream with chocolate-covered almonds, is about the best flavor, but I'm not impressed by Carnation's peach or strawberry cheesecake, in spite of their comparatively healthy 12% butterfat content. The peach is grainy and lacks intensity, and the strawberry cheesecake tastes a little artificial. I do like the good Italian ices, made especially for Thompson by Brothers Italian Ices of Costa Mesa. Both pina colada and blue raspberry are first class.

Grandma's, 101 Main St., Seal Beach. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Single scoop, $1.45; double, $2.50. (213) 596-8580.

T. Berry's: Fashion Island shoppers flock to this little stand for its McConnell's ice cream, made in Santa Barbara, and Honey Hill Farms frozen yogurt, but I like it for a different reason--namely, the Flurry. The Flurry is one of those newfangled machines that will mix almost anything (except hard-shelled candies like M & M's) into your yogurt, making a theoretically infinite number of flavors possible. I tried one of my own creation which I'll call "pecantaHeath:" French vanilla yogurt with pecan pralines, cantaloupe and pieces of crushed Heath bar. I don't think the market is quite ready for this one.

Honey Hill is a yogurt I like, although I much prefer its tart vanilla to its chocolate mousse flavor, which I find slightly chalky. McConnell's super-premium ice cream has a 17% butterfat content, and approximately 273 calories per 4 fluid ounces, but doesn't taste all that creamy to me. The chocolate burnt almond is full of fat almonds, for example, but just misses in flavor and intensity. Better in my book are the company's fruity sorbets, made with no dairy products whatsoever.

T. Berry's, Atrium Court, Fashion Island, Newport Beach. Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday till 8 p.m. Single scoop ice cream, $1.65; double, $2.95. Small yogurt, $1.75; large yogurt, $2.75. (714) 640-6070.

White Mountain Creamery: If my friends and I had made this into a competition, this Irvine Marketplace shop would have won hands down.

White Mountain is a Louisville, Ky.-based company that began in Boston, as did Steve's (you'll find a Steve's in MainPlace/Santa Ana), so it is not surprising that the specialty here is the hand mix-in, where selected toppings are hand mashed into unexpected flavors.

The thing is, this ice cream doesn't need it, because it is such a treat all by itself. All these ice creams are churned in the shop with rock salt in old-fashioned, 5-gallon White Mountain freezers; that's the concept, resulting in pure bliss. Choose from 22 flavors such as a sensational vanilla malt, a divinely textured fresh cream and the great and under-appreciated raspberry lime sorbet. White Mountain Creamery likes to think Oreo is its star flavor, where what seems like pure cookies are majestically transformed into ice cream, but I'm going with dark Jamaican rum, because you can see the Meyers bottles behind the counter.

White Mountain Creamery, The Marketplace at Bridge Road and Campus Drive, Irvine, (714) 854-7675. Open Sunday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight. Single scoop, $1.15; double, $1.45.

Happy Days Frozen Yogurt: Mrs. Nancy Wylie, proprietor of this Huntington Beach yogurt store, is my official yogurt guru. She runs one of the county's tightest operations, and explained how.

"It's important to set machines properly," she said, "and to use the right amount of air." The overrun, a technical term for the percentage of air in the mix, determines the texture and should not exceed 50%. (Although in some places it is much higher.) Furthermore, Wylie never uses what is called runoff, namely, that goopy liquid that comes out and drains on the bottom of the machine, which some unscrupulous owners re-pour into the machine.

That said, I'm not a fan of her yogurt. And here's the reason: She hinted that Altadena (used by Penguin's) and Honey Hill, both of which I like, have a slightly tart flavor, while Columbo, which she uses, and TCBY, a well-known national brand, are sweeter products. I simply don't like a sweet frozen yogurt.

I will say that Wylie is a yogurt whiz, though, and that her claim about her product having no sour aftertaste is true. Her best and truest flavor, for me, is Old World chocolate.

Happy Days Frozen Yogurt, 213 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 969-5172. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Small, $1.40; large, $1.90.

Golden Spoon: Golden Spoon is another well-known local yogurt company, and I believe its yogurts fall in the middle of the sweetness spectrum. This is a brand that always keeps a couple of low-fat, as opposed to nonfat, frozen yogurts on hand, and if you're interested, the difference here is 8 calories per fluid ounce (14 against 22) in the product.

Oddly enough, I found the low-fat chocolate fudge flavor lighter and less creamy than the nonfat Belgian chocolate, which had a darker, richer flavor. This is also a place where it is easy to overdo the toppings, because they always look so good. I guiltily ate my way through a cupful of good vanilla with crushed Snickers and malt ball pieces. Just make sure to pass on the nonfat hot fudge they push, which tastes like a chalky, melted Hershey bar.

Golden Spoon, 488 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa (and multiple Orange County locations). Open Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11:30 p.m. Small, $1.65; large, $2.15. (714) 548-9147.

Swensen's: Swensen's is hardly the new kid on the block in the premium ice cream world, having been around for the better part of 40 years. But this is one company that still competes with the best and then some.

Sticky, chewy chocolate is still one of the best flavors anywhere, and has one of the most addictive textures I know of. Its super premium, Earle's special combinations, are dynamite, especially honey-roasted maple walnut and one called cookies and cookies and cream, with a sneaky caramel surprise cookie filling.

But I can't say the same for the hard-packed frozen yogurts, cholesterol free and basically awful. However, the gourmet sugar-free ice creams, sweetened with NutraSweet, are terrific, with names like vanilla Swiss almond and tin roof sundae, a chocolate and nut lover's dream, and the all-natural light is pretty good as well. There are so many distinctions here that it is easy to get confused. Sugar-free has around 110 calories per 4-ounce serving, frozen yogurt around 100, and the all-natural light around 130.

Swensen's, 9120 Adams St., Huntington Beach, (and other O.C. locations). Open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday till 11 p.m. Single scoop, $1.25; double, $2.40. (714) 968-7889.

Haagen-Dazs: Besides the fact that this ice cream is top-drawer, some marketing genius seems to have gotten it into practically every big shopping mall in the world, so it's one brand that's just about impossible to ignore. I do like its richness and clarity, and the simple flavors--especially the intense vanilla and ultra-lemony lemon sorbet--always taste pure and focused.

But lately, it's the frozen yogurt, hard and soft, that I have been coming here for. Haagen-Dazs soft frozen yogurt is the creamiest around. It's of the low-fat designation but as high in calories (120 per 4 fluid ounces) as any I tasted, so that's that. I'm a fan of the coffee and raspberry flavors. They really taste like their prototypes.

And the hard-packed yogurt (130 calories per 4 fluid ounces) is just about the best I know of. A flavor called Belgian chocolate chocolate is dark, fudgy and complex, a triple threat no chocolate person could resist. I'm going to give it the highest praise I can think of. It's almost as good as ice cream.

Haagen-Dazs, South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa (and multiple O . C . locations). Open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Single scoop, $1.70; double, $3.15. (714) 754-7752.

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