Great Escapes

07.27.14

Dr. Mike’s Makes the Best Ice Cream on Earth

In honor of National Ice Cream Month, take a pit stop in Bethel, CT, where the richest, thickest ice cream is handmade daily. Warning: Dr. Mike's sundaes are not for the faint of heart.

Dr. Mike’s, named for the dentist who devised the original recipes and opened a back-alley shop in the 1970s, just might serve the best ice cream on the planet. No more than eight flavors are available at any one time at the ice cream parlor in Bethel, Connecticut, and they are chalked up on the wall blackboard. The roster is subject to change if, for instance, cherry vanilla or mint chip gets eaten up and replaced by mocha double nut or peaches and cream.

The one flavor you can always count on, however, is rich chocolate, the most chocolaty food imaginable. It is a devastating concoction with an explosive Dutch cocoa taste carried in custard that is as smooth as iced velvet and as rich as clotted cream. Chocolate Lace and Cream, another daily flavor, is made of sweet cream (not vanilla) and chunks of brittle sugar candy sheathed in bittersweet chocolate. Fancy flavors such as Heath Bar and Oreo include massive amounts of their star ingredients, so there is never any need to go hunting for the goodies. Fruit flavors are intensely fruity. Even plain vanilla is dazzling—smooth and pure beyond description.

Shortly after opening, the original Dr. Mike sold the business to Robert Allison, who now ingenuously answers to the name "Dr. Mike." When asked why his product is so good, he explains that the store's cramped surroundings preclude mass production and mass storage. There is no warehouse, no company ice cream factory, no facilities other than the original back-of-the-building space: a four foot counter and a miniscule kitchen that barely has room for a single cook.

Dr. Mike's Ice Cream Factory
Michael Stern

Despite critical acclaim from virtually every important food journal and website, in addition to a parade of entrepreneurs promising to make Dr. Mike's a name as lucrative as Ben & Jerry's, Allison has purposely kept the facilities small so as never to be tempted to make production more efficient. The only way to manufacture ice cream in this shop is daily, by hand, in small batches. Dr. Mike's is one happy oasis of dairy goodness where the joys of making and eating ice cream outweigh the business of selling and marketing it.

If you do come for a taste, don't expect to dine in style. There is a minimum of space on an open porch near the door (no indoor seats at all) and some picnic tables spread across the lawn. On a weekend afternoon, you will wait in line to place your order at a counter so tiny that the two employees have to squeeze around each other to scoop whatever flavor they need.

Dr. Mike's ice cream is not available pre-packed, and it is awe-inspiring to watch one of the kids behind the counter fill a pint to order. A heavy trowel is used to retrieve a mass of your chosen kind of ice cream from its tub and put it in the cardboard container. It is pressed deep inside, then more is fetched to mash on top. When the container is piled high with ice cream far above its rim, the pint-packer uses the trowel like a mallet, pounding to make the ice cream fit, even pushing it below the rim, so more can be laid on top. This continues until an impossibly huge amount of ice cream is compressed into the pint. The server takes a cardboard lid and eases it over the mounded-high ice cream so that the band around the circumference winds up fitting like a belt you wore three sizes ago.

"I love it so much that I figure I need to make the best there is. If I didn't, I'd have to go someplace else whenever I wanted a cone."

And oh, what sundaes! By the time a shovel full of freshly whipped cream is plopped on top, the full-sized sundae completely fills a cardboard pint container. Among the toppings, take special note of the tart-sweet dark cherries, especially if chocolate malt ice cream happens to be on the board that day. And the hot fudge is some of the best anywhere – thick and glossy black, just minimally sweet. Dr. Mike's also makes outrageous milk shakes. Never in all the years we've come to this place have we seen the blades of the milk shake mixer work efficiently. Once everything is put into the tall silver beaker and the beaker is wedged into the blender, the shake-maker has to stand there poking at the ingredients and coaxing them to budge so that the ice cream, milk, and flavors will mix. Without such prodding, the machine's wand simply doesn't have enough torque to move ice cream so formidable.

Everything about Dr. Mike's bespeaks the single-minded passion of a man who has what he is quite certain is the best job on earth. As he swirls his tongue around a scoop of that morning's rich chocolate perched atop a cone, Robert Allison cries out, "I love it!" with the unabashed glee of a ten-year-old boy. "I love it so much that I figure I need to make the best there is. If I didn't, I'd have to go someplace else whenever I wanted a cone."

Dr. Mike's: 158 Greenwood Ave., Bethel, CT. 203-792-4388