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The Scoop

We all scream for Houston's best ice cream

A few years ago, on a hot summer day, I took my friends John and Jan Bebout for their first visit to Hank's Ice Cream on South Main. Jan is trim and extremely fit, and also a dainty eater. We'd just had a large dinner of barbecued crabs. Jan surprised me when she ordered two big scoops of Hank's vanilla on a cone. I was even more shocked at how fast she devoured them both. After that, I was ready to get in the car and go home, but Jan wasn't. Declaring Hank's the best ice cream in Houston, she got a cone with two more humongous scoops of vanilla and ate those too. I stood there with my mouth open watching this petite woman eat four huge scoops of ice cream.

Ice cream on a hot day will do that to people. There is a sort of delirium that overtakes enthusiastic ice cream eaters. They become lost in the experience. It's not an addiction, exactly — more like a mind-blowing rush that you just can't get enough of. A drugless high. As Voltaire said, "Ice cream is exquisite — what a pity it isn't illegal."

My friend Paul Howell and I sometimes play golf in the morning, then go eat lunch. But recently, the temperature on the golf course topped 100 degrees by the time we finished 18 holes. When Howell asked where we were going for lunch, I didn't know what to say. Standing in the baking asphalt parking lot changing my shoes beside my car, I felt more like fainting from heat exhaustion than eating. It was just too hot for lunch.

Hank and Okemah Wiggins have covered the walls of Hank's Ice Cream Parlor with the ­endorsements of enthusiastic ­celebrities.
Photo by Paul S. Howell
Hank and Okemah Wiggins have covered the walls of Hank's Ice Cream Parlor with the ­endorsements of enthusiastic ­celebrities.
Working some fixings into a scoop at Amy's warms up the ice cream a little and improves the flavor.
Photo by Paul S. Howell
Working some fixings into a scoop at Amy's warms up the ice cream a little and improves the flavor.

"Let's go eat ice cream," I proposed.

Hank's Ice Cream is located in the shadow of Reliant Stadium. Hank and Okemah Wiggins opened the place in 1985. They used to make their ice cream in the back of the store, but the operation got too successful, and they had to move the ice cream factory a couple of doors down to a bigger space.

While Okemah Wiggins was scooping our ice cream, I asked her about the butterfat level. She wouldn't disclose the secret recipe, but she assured me the butterfat content is much higher than in the standard commercial stuff. "It's a premium ice cream," she said.

If you love church-supper desserts, you'll love the homemade Southern flavor of Hank's ice cream. Butter pecan is the No. 1 flavor, followed by banana pudding. I asked Howell, who grew up as a minister's son in a small town in East Texas, if he thought that Hank's butter pecan was so popular because it tasted like pecan pie. He said that he thought the roasted pecans might be salted, which added another flavor dimension.

What Howell remembered most about the hand-cranked ice cream they made at East Texas ice cream socials was the combination of sweet and salty that resulted when the rock salt solution sloshed into the vanilla ice cream a little. When we finished our cones at Hank's, we got back in the car.

"Let's go eat more ice cream," I said. I wondered if we should invite Jan Bebout.
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After working my scoop of Mexican Vanilla up and mixing it with fresh strawberries on the stonework surface, Amy's scoop-slinger Jennifer Cotton threw the ball of ice cream high in the air and caught it with a cone. Then she stood there for a second looking like the Statue of Liberty, with an ice cream torch and a big smile. Such antics are part of the training at the Austin-based Amy's chain. The company even holds an ice cream-trick Olympics every year.

Mexican Vanilla is Amy's No. 1 flavor companywide, according to manager Nathaniel Scott. It's also the top seller in Houston. After a few bites, I could see why. Scott said the vanilla used in this ice cream isn't a typical vanilla pod, but a hybrid of vanilla and another member of the orchid family. He didn't have any more detailed botanical information, but after a couple of mouthfuls, I could attest that there was something different about this vanilla flavor. It was intoxicatingly good, at least in my opinion. Howell liked Hank's better.

The Amy's ice cream location on Farnham in Houston makes its own ice cream on the premises. Sweet cream, Belgian chocolate, dark chocolate, Just Vanilla and coffee are a few of the other regular flavors at Amy's. Rotating flavors include alcohol ones like Guinness and orange blossom. The wacky antics with the ice cream at Amy's aren't all for show. Softening the ice cream by working it on the stone brings the superhard frozen ice cream down in temperature and makes it taste better.

Softened or not, some people love Amy's ice cream, and some can take it or leave it. "When I eat Amy's ice cream, I feel like my mouth gets coated with Crisco, and I can't taste anything," one ice cream fan commented. That's because Amy's ice cream is relatively high in butterfat, at 14 percent.

Ice cream must contain at least 10 percent butterfat to meet the legal definition of the term; national commercial ice cream brands average around 11 percent. A level of 12 percent butterfat qualifies an ice cream as premium. Amy's is 14 percent butterfat, which makes it a super-premium. Ben & Jerry's and Häagen-Dazs are ultra-premiums at 16 to 18 percent butterfat. To some people, higher butterfat makes ice cream taste richer (count me among this group). For others, it ruins the experience.
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