On humid nights, condensation may fog the front doors of Sweet Bribery, lending an air of time-traveling mystique as you step into the modernized throwback to a retro ice cream parlor.
The new ice cream shop on W 19th was barely a week old when we visited, though people still clustered around the tables in the back of the shop, with couples trickling through to the gold tables and woven chairs out front. Wearing paper soda jerk caps and cheerful pink aprons, all three employees—not one, but all three—greeted us as we wandered up to the counter to oogle the sweets display.
"Fresh milk. Thick cream. Golden eggs." These are the website claims of Sweet Bribery, a shop offering "perfected American classics and inventive flavors." Perhaps you have heard of, or sampled some of the low-calorie ice creams invading supermarket shelves—Sweet Bribery is the decided antithesis to this trend, an unadulterated champion of saving "restraint for another day," claiming "there’s nothing equal to the taste of real ingredients and the satisfaction of indulgence."
I mean, when the warm, caramelized scent of freshly pressed waffle cones hits your nose, it's hard to imagine anything besides surrendering to the indulgence. Pastry chef Sharon Leonard, who previously served as the pastry chef at Uchi, JW Marriott and State of Grace, now leads the Sweet Bribery kitchen. Nearly everything is made in-house, from the restrained selection of ice cream (just nine classic dairy flavors, and three vegan/gluten free flavors are officially listed on the site, though more seem to be available in-store), to the hot fudge sauce, Frangelico banana caramel and homemade marshmallow fluff.
Several large screens display sweet options above the counter—besides the obvious scoop of ice cream, there are the homemade toppings and cones to consider, banana splits, malts, shakes, ice cream pops, baked goods, and the myriad "Modern Favorites" sundae creations.
We opted for the obvious choice—one of the Modern Favorites, since it features the ideal permutation of a baked good, ice cream and toppings. The Southern Grasshopper features mint chocolate chip ice cream on top of a creme de menthe brownie, hot fudge and tiny morsels of Andes mints. The soft, scoopable brownie with a layer of pepperminty buttercream was delicious, but the mint ice cream was a revelation. Unlike commercial ice cream which often tastes like vanilla ice cream once kissed by a fake mint leaf, Bribery's version allows the pure, elemental flavor of peppermint to pierce cleanly through creamy butterfat, giving the undoubtedly decadent ice cream a refreshing effect almost similar to a sorbet. My only quibble with the entire sundae was that the homemade fudge sauce was a bit runny, pooling off the ice cream at the bottom of the bowl—but it tasted fantastic, so it's a very small quibble.
I was so taken with a sample of the vegan coconut milk key lime pie ice cream that we also bought a pint to take home. With a good dose of lime, this tangy ice cream melts on the tongue like a sherbert, and it's peppered with just enough finely grated shreds of toasted coconut. An employee packed this pint fresh for us, but those in a rush can find pre-packaged pints of several popular flavors (banana pudding, Tahitian vanilla bean, etc.) in a fridge near the back of the store for $10. At the back of the store, you'll also find find sodas like real-sugar Dr. Pepper, Caphin coffee, and pup-friendly treats.
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Sweet Bribery is full of delightful contradictions. The retro soda jerk cap aesthetic is elevated to modern-day hipster status with hot pink bunny graphic wallpaper, marble counters paired with gold trim and neon lighting illuminating confectionary-related products across the back wall. Classic flavors like chocolate, vanilla and cookies 'n cream sit next to red velvet cream cheese and fruity pebbles cereal milk. Creme de menthe brownies, a recipe handed down from Leonard's grandmother, share a counter with technicolor cereal treats and decidedly salty-sweet "Tailgate" cookies blinged out with savory chips and pretzels. I envy the children who will grow up with these ice creams made with great care, but also worry that they'll be forever spoiled for ice cream in the future.
Alcoholic options were not available when we visited, but they will soon offer adult floats (think rose with amarena cherries and strawberries or champagne with sorbet and fresh fruit) in addition to wine by the glass and beer.
While there's no shortage of ice cream choices in Houston, this charming joint with its endless options is sure to become a neighborhood favorite and beyond.