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This week’s installment of Quick Bites brings us to Chinatown for ice cream roll-ups… just in time for this insane heatwave.
THE VIBE If it weren’t for the line of giddy teenagers spilling through the door, up the steps, and out onto the sidewalk, you’d probably miss 10Below altogether. Situated subterraneously at the tail end of Mott Street, this Thai-style ice cream roll shop announces itself with barely-there signage and a blank plate-glass window—there’s zero visible whimsy from the outside, and it’s all set back beneath a generic hair salon and a Family Dentistry outfit.
Clearly though, even one week in, there are plenty of people who DO know about 10Below, given the 74 reviews and 125 photos (and counting!) already on Yelp. Not to mention the continuously replenished, 45-minute line that—despite the heroic efforts of the counter crew—never got any shorter in the hour or so I spent there last Saturday afternoon.
The heavy customer traffic takes its toll on the bare-bones space, which is hot and crowded and, because none of the ice-cream-roll-makers dare leave their posts, prone to puddles and sticky surfaces throughout. Basically: this is not a cute, cozy place, which is fine by me, but don’t show up expecting an Amorino.
The staff at 10Below are remarkably enthusiastic (singing and bopping along to the likes of Carly Rae and Miley Cyrus), friendly, and patient—which is incredible given the forearm-busting labor required to make each of these rolls to order. Like scraping ice off a car, but for hours.
THE BITES There are eight different ice cream rolls at 10Below right now, and the plan is to change the menu each week. That is actually not quite as ambitious as it sounds, given that each variety consists of the same sweet liquid cream as its base, with all of the flavor provided by the mix-ins. So the difference between the Cookies Monster, for example, and the Mo Money Mo Mangoes is just: one has an Oreo and the other some fruit.
Here’s how your 10Below ice cream roll order goes…
1. Server plops the mix-ins onto his specially-designed cold plate, which when turned on instantly freezes to, you guessed it, ten below zero.
2. Server pours over a measure of the base cream, which one young man described to me as being “kind of like English cream, kind of like vanilla, but pretty bland without the extra stuff.”
3. The pounding, scraping, shaping, more scraping, and rolling begins. This takes a couple of minutes per order, and then your server places the five roll-ups he’s created vertically in a cup. They look a little like sandwich wraps at this point.
4. Toppings time! Choose from among the array of fresh fruit, drizzled-on sauces, whipped cream, a few crunchy treats, all of which is included in the $6 price. It’s all pretty simple at 10Below so far: no Gummi Bears or yogurt-covered-pretzels, though who knows what next week’s flavors will bring.
There are obvious similarities here to the Cold Stone Creamery conglomerate, though I haven’t been to one of those in years. Immediately and clearly in 10Below’s favor is the not-Times-Square location.
I tried three different varieties at 10Below: the Cookie Monster (with Oreos, chocolate sauce, and added coconut); the Strawberry Shawty (strawberry, banana, graham cracker, and condensed milk mixed in, with more fresh fruit on top); and the S’Mores Galore (chocolate, graham cracker, freshly-blowtorched marshmallow). They all tasted good, because all of those things are good, especially after the ice cream had melted a bit, and the flavors could really come out.
S’mores was my favorite, but I finished all three cups (almost), which is a lot of ice cream to eat at one sitting, so obviously I was enjoying myself. The crew here talk about how the 10Below technique makes for a creamier concoction without having to add extra fat or emulsifiers, so there’s that (it’s apparently thanks to the tiny ice crystals created by both the pounding and the quick-freeze), but it didn’t seem appreciably more or less texturally accomplished than any number of other good frozen treats out there.
THE VERDICT It’s a little hard to understand the insta-hit status of 10Below. It’s fun to watch them make your ice cream right in front of you, and the process affords obvious Instagram and/or Snapchat opportunities. It is cold, creamy, sweet, and satisfying, all of which are positive things for ice cream to be, no doubt. In the end though, there’s nothing revolutionary enough going on here to justify a 45-minute wait, especially if you have to travel to south Chinatown. For locals (not me) and NYC ice-cream completists (me) only.
10Below Ice Cream is located at 10 Mott Street between Mosco and Worth, and is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 11:30 on Friday and Saturday nights. (10belowicecream.com)