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  • 27 Nov 2014

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Salt and Straw: quirky, tasty, green

If Portland were served on an ice cream cone, it just might be a scoop of Freckled Woodblock Chocolate.

The purveyors of Salt & Straw ice cream dreamed up the flavor to showcase two unique ingredients — made-in-Portland chocolate and harvested-in-Oregon sea salt — that combine for a subtle yet complex flavor, the essence of their wildly successful “farm to cone” philosophy.

Starting up just two years ago with a food cart on Northeast Alberta Street, the company opened its first shop on Northwest 23rd Avenue three months later, and then its second on Alberta.

It’s poised to open an ice cream cart in Lake Oswego in mid-June and a third brick-and-mortar shop two weeks later at Southeast Division Street and 33rd Avenue.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Woodblock Chocolate owner Charley Wheelock has gotten a buzz from the success of Salt & Straws ice cream with his ingredients.  Salt & Straw co-owners Kim and Tyler Malek also will move their cramped production headquarters into a separate kitchen in Southeast Portland in mid-July. By summer the two cousins will employ about 170 people.

For a treat best enjoyed in the sunshine, Salt & Straw commands lines around the block before 8 a.m., even on Portland’s wettest winter mornings.

So what’s the secret?

It could be the outlandish flavors Tyler Malek dreams up. His bone marrow and smoked cherry with bourbon flavor has drawn national attention.

Last spring, his Arbequina

olive oil earned a shout-out from Oprah Winfrey. It was the first of a flurry of national media coverage that hasn’t stopped.

Some of the exposure, cachet and credibility comes from working with and cross-promoting with Portland foodie icons like Pok Pok, Olympic Provisions and Stumptown Coffee.

A series of collaborations with local chefs last June was the impetus for sake ice cream with housemade yuzu marmalade (a collaboration with Bamboo Sushi); and “foie s’mores”: toasted foie gras marshmallows and smoked vanilla ice cream with veal chocolate sauce and hazelnut graham cracker crumble (a collaboration with Ox).

Quite a mouthful — literally.

Basically, the Maleks say they wanted to showcase Portland on a cone.

“Ice cream is a canvas for (Portland’s) artisan movements,” says Tyler Malek, who now leads the ice cream operations along with a food scientist and an ice cream chef. “It’s approachable. We can give samples. It has a neutral base that holds flavor really well.”

The neutral base is hearty, made from 17 percent butterfat compared to the standard 10 percent for most ice creams. It’s also made by hand in small batches of 5 or 10 gallons. Salt & Straw had been using all-natural cream from Lochmead Dairy in Eugene, but just switched to a closer dairy to reduce its carbon footprint.

The adventurous offerings alone aren’t what catapulted Salt & Straw to success in just two years. It’s the community built in the process of collaborating with restaurants and artisan purveyors, the Malek cousins say.

“Our mantra is ‘All ships rise,’” Kim Malek says. “For a business, in order to be sustainable, we have to be part of a strong community.”

To Kim Malek, community means having a place families can hang out together, where neighbors run into each other and customers can meet in line and buy their new acquaintance a scoop or land a job offer.

She dreamed of opening an ice cream shop when she lived here in the late 1990s. She left town for a corporate job but returned a few years ago, rekindling her dream of the ‘90s after she realized her cousin Tyler, who was thinking about culinary school, was on a similar path.

This month their menu specials celebrate Father’s Day with a “six pack” of beer-inspired ice cream flavors, in partnership with Portland craft brewers Breakside Brewery, Gigantic Brewing Company, Hair of the Dog Brewing Co., Logsdon Organic Farmhouse Ales, The Commons Brewery and Widmer Brothers Brewing.

The flavors don’t actually contain beer; that just didn’t taste right, Malek says. So he worked with local brew masters to deconstruct the flavor profiles of their own beers and recreate them in the kitchen.

From the start, Salt and Straw has used 100 percent renewable energy, and fully compostable serving ware. Tasting spoons are made of reusable metal.

“We started thinking, how many spoons are we going to go through?” Kim Malek says. Besides, she says, “I don’t like the taste of the wooden spoons on your tongue.”

Ingredient-wise, Salt & Straw does not use any high-fructose corn syrup or ingredients containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which Kim Malek says wasn’t an easy feat.

“We’ve had to search the world for a couple of ingredients,” including a corn syrup solid from Germany,” she says. “All of these things were expensive and scary, but we tried to build it into our business model.”