Today’s Tompkins Square Park looks nothing like the Tompkins of the past, notorious for its syringes, punks, and the cardboard box where neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat used to sleep. Ray’s Candy Store, however, hasn’t changed since 1974. For over 40 years, Ray’s has served up classics, like fried oreos, beignets, hot dogs, and malt milkshakes—but no candy, believe it or not. Upon entering Ray’s Candy Store today, you’ll be greeted by the somehow comforting stench of grease, and the octogenarian store owner, Ray Alvarez. Ray, originally Ashgar Ghahraman, entered the US from Iran in the 1950s and posed as Ray in order to hide his undocumented status. Although Ghahraman is now a naturalized American citizen, Ray will stick around as long as his namesake continues to feed Alphabet City. Enjoy the gigantic portions of greasy, sugary food in one of Tompkins’ lush meadows across the street.
Try the strawberry and pistachio frozen yogurt in a wafer cone with rainbow sprinkles. It’s way too big and way too artificial in all the best ways.
2. Soft Swerve
Soft Swerve’s fame extends far beyond the Lower East Side—tourists and locals alike line up to try the iconic ube ice cream. Ube purple yam (very similar to taro) is often used to flavor Asian deserts. If you’re suspicious of potato ice cream, don’t be so quick to judge. Ube tastes like a gently nutty vanilla. It’s simultaneously familiar and exotic, which is probably what makes it so appealing. In addition to ube, Soft Swerve serves less popular, but equally delicious flavors, like almond cookie, black sesame, and matcha green tea. The store pays homage to its New Yorker heritage with NYC-themed sundaes—from the Woodside (named after the Queens neighborhood) to the Division Street (named after the Chinatown street).
Get the ube purple yam and almond cookie swirl in a black chocolate cone with marshmallows. They use crunchy Lucky Charms-type marshmallows to contrast the smoothness of the soft serve ice cream.
Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood feels like home, no matter where you’re from. While slurping down your old-fashioned New York egg cream at the family-run Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, you’ll be surrounded by families from near and far—older generations reminisce about the days of poodle skirts and nickel buys, while young kids discover the beauty of malted milkshakes. Although Brooklyn Farmacy stays true to the 1920s apothecary it’s housed in, it updates these vintage classics with creativity and 21st century portions. Just be prepared to pay the 21st century prices.
Sip on the Pink Poodle ice cream float, a scoop of ice cream melting into bright magenta hibiscus soda.
Stationed blocks away from the iconic Jing Fong Restaurant, Chinatown Ice Cream Factory has established itself as a mandatory post-dim sum treat. This family-run “unofficial NYC landmark” is one of Chinatown’s oldest businesses, open since 1978. Chinatown Ice Cream Factory may look like any other ice cream parlor with its glass display of multicolored ice creams. However, this display spans the length of the store: there really is something for everyone. If you want, you can get vanilla or chocolate, but classic Asian flavors are this store’s speciality.
Don’t miss these unique flavors: zen butter, an overwhelmingly nutty sesame and peanut butter blend, and pandan, a fluorescent green Malaysian leaf that tastes like taro.
Rockaway Beach used to be an unpretentious summer destination for New Yorkers, but the hipsterification of Riis Park and Fort Tilden has left much of the area obnoxious and overpriced. If you find yourself in need of unflashy icy refreshment after spending the day getting knocked around by Rockaway’s rough waves, walk down to Beach 94th Street for some good, old fashioned Italian ice with a fun twist. You could always just buy from the lady who pushes her cart along the beach, ringing her bell to announce her arrival, but she offers the same flavors you’ll find on every street corner: cherry, mango, coconut, rainbow, and maybe lemon-lime, if you’re lucky. Meanwhile, Uncle Louie G’s boasts almost 100 flavors. Stick around for the punny (and often accidentally euphemistic) flavor names.
Try one of these aggressively New York flavors: Holi Cannoli, Rainbow Cookie, Coney Island Cotton Candy, FDNY Red, or NYPD Blue. Though, beware, the ices inspired by Italian desserts are quite chunky.