In the three decades since I first tasted it, Swensen’s Swiss Orange Chip remains the only ice cream — the only dessert — that evokes in me such a heady mix of desire and nostalgia. Even the mind-blowing mascarpone gelato I once tried in Florence in my post-college years comes in at a distant second.
I was five, maybe six years old, when I discovered Swiss Orange Chip, a mix of rich milk chocolate ice cream (darker than any chocolate ice cream I’d ever had from a grocery store) with orange essence and cool, brittle shards of dark chocolate. It was the first time I had tried chocolate and orange — together. It’s still one of my all-time favorite flavor combinations.
When I brought home a good report card, after every honor band recital, sometimes just for fun, we went to Swensen’s. Once, I held a birthday party there. Guess what flavor I chose for the cake.
Swensen’s had other flavors, plenty of them: lime green pistachio, a cloying pink ice cream riddled with gumballs. I never gave them a second look. That was stuff you could find anywhere else. While I was inside a Swensen’s, I had a strictly monogamous relationship with Swiss Orange Chip.
Where Did All the Swenson’s Go?
Once a popular chain of ice cream parlors, Swensen’s fell on hard times. Perhaps it was a victim of changing tastes or increased competition. The old-timey theme, complete with curlicue lettering and imitation Tiffany pedant lamps, that seemed so exciting to me as a child might seem stale and cutesy in this new era of hip, upscale, house-blended ice creams.
I think the Swensen’s in my hometown had closed by the time I left for college. For years after, Los Angeles still had a franchise (in Santa Monica, to be precise). That one closed too. The ice cream chain that once seemed to dot suburban California like candied pecans in caramel ice cream, has been reduced to only one outpost in this state. (It’s actually the original 1948 location in San Francisco at the corner of Hyde and Union streets.) There’s one each in Texas, Minnesota and Florida as well as a few in Arizona and Nevada. If you loved Swensen’s as a child and want a profound sense of cognitive dissonance, definitely seek out the one in the Luxor casino. When I last checked in, it did serve Swiss Orange Chip.
Swensen’s also seems to be a big hit in Singapore, where it has two-dozen outposts — more than all of its American locations combined. Perhaps there is hope for my childhood favorite. I just have to travel halfway across the world to find it. Or learn how to make it…