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Jul 22, 2008 07:09 AM

D. C. Frozen Custard

I just returned from a business trip that allowed to me eat frozen custard at Milwaukee's Kopp's ( ) , Madison's Michael's ( ) and St. Louis' Ted Drewes ( ), all within 48 hours. All of these scoop their custard, all are long standing enromously popular local traditions. Ted Drewes is a St. Louis icon. The richest of the three is Kopp's which is 16% butterfat-both of the others are a more typical 10-11%. All three were extremely dense. Both Kopp's and Michael's have unique flavors that change every day Of the three I thought the overall best was Kopp's while the best vanilla was Michael's. For me Ted Drewes was a step below the other two.

I say all this because there is one Washington area frozen custard stand that I believe is as good as any of them: Neilsen's, a Utah outpost, in Vienna. This is similar to Michael's in a 10 to 11% butterfat base and extremely dense. The density allows richness although it doesn't approach Kopp's. Neilsen's weakness are the virtual absense of interesting daily flavors while the Dairy Godmother has flavors similar to both of the Wisconsin standards. I am not a fan of the Dairy Godmother because, for me, it is not very rich. No, scooped frozen custard is not suppose to be but this lacks the the texture of Michael's where, like Neilsen's, it "feels" much richer than it really is.

Carl's in Fredericksburg which uses original ElectroFreeze machines from the mid '50's (one of only two left in VA) is not as rich either although the flavor of its vanilla is excellent.

For anyone who has not tried Neilsen's it may be worth a trip around the beltway. Ted Drewes created the "concrete" and is legendary for it. I think Neilsen's is better. Also, if you hit it on the right day, you may luck out and find one of the few "interesting" flavors they do. Still, for basic frozen custard, sundaes and concretes this is the D. C. area's best and equal-for these-to St. Louis and Wisconsin's best.

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  1. I totally agree with you Joe. I have lived in Utah twice in the past 10 years and Nielsen's was a huge fave of ours. It always wins some sort of "best regional foods" award in Men's Health or some magazine like that. I have only been to the Vienna one once, so i don't remember, but if they are like the Utah ones, they have pints & quarts of the flavor of the day available from the past several so you have options besides choc, van & the flavor of the day that day. My fave toppers are the salted almonds and the 'bumbleberries'....yum, i'm getting hungry...

    1. I've been to Neilsen's a couple of times and thought it was pretty good. Interesting to hear how it compares to places where (for some unknown reason) frozen custard has become a local legend. Frozen Dairy Bar is just a mile from me, Neilsen's is ten miles, it's more expensive, it's noisier, and it's harder to park. So for me, it's an opportunity treat, not one I'd go out of my way for.

      There's a new (I think) Rita's Water Ices open in Landmark Plaza just a few miles away. I've tried their ice, and next time I get over there I'll try their custard, unless someone tells me not to bother.

      7 Replies
      1. re: MikeR

        What do you think of Milwaukee Frozen Custard? I live near the one in Herndon. How does it compare to Nielsen's?

        1. re: MikeR

          The custard at Rita's is more like soft serve than the hand scooped custard of Dairy Godmother, Nielson's and Frozen Dairy Bar. But the combo of frozen ice with custard can be very refreshing in the dog days of summer. I am a big fan of the sugar free tangerine ice topped with vanilla custard at Rita's.

          I adore all of the above custard spots, my only complaint with Nielsons is they lack a web site listing the flavors that day.

          1. re: Aza Mila

            Neilson's is not big on flavors of the day. They have one but, for the most part, they are not as creative or diverse as the Wisconsin stores. It is just their basic custard along with their version of a concrete that is so good.

            The original Frozen Dairy Bar was in a free standing building dating to the '50's on rt. 50. At some point it closed and the ElectroFreeze machines were moved to Lee Highway near the cemetary. That closed, it moved back into the strip center behind the original location and, eventually this location also closed. They rarely used the ElectroFreeze machine there-it kept breaking down. I have no idea where it is now but unless they use it I wouldn't like the custard. To the best of my knowledge Carl's in Fredericksburg and Klein's in Harrisonburg are the only two surviving frozen custard stands in VA using their original machines. Neilson's, the Dairy GodMother and Milwaukee all have machines which allow them to similarly scoop their custard.

            Milwaukee Frozen Custard is a very cheap imitation of Kopp's and Michael's lacking the rich density of those. Some of the flavors are good but click on the Kopp's and Michael's websites above and compare those to MFC. When it first opened more than ten years ago and Al was in it everyday in Chantilly it was MUCH better. Based on a half dozen visits to Herndon and Chantilly in the past several years I've stopped going much preferring the longer drive from Reston (where I live) to Vienna.

            Personally, I wouldn't bother with Rita's.

            1. re: Joe H

              Nielson's typically has at least 2 flavors of the day in addition to vanilla and chocolate. They are not the imaginative creations of Dairy Godmother (Kulfi and Mozambique come to mind as to of my favs), but Nielsons has some top notch flavors on occasion. Their peanut butter is outrageously good.

              The original Frozen Dairy Bar when run using the old electro freeze offered vanilla, chocolate and if they were feeling really wild and crazy - strawberry. I much prefer the new version of Frozen Dairy Bar sans electro freeze that has some very original and tasty flavors of the day.

              I would encourage everyone to try Rita's just without the expectation that it is Wiscon-style custard.

              1. re: Joe H

                There were a couple of stories about what happened with the original Frozen Dairy Bar machine. The second owner (after the original two brothers decided to retire) wanted to keep the place as original as possible but the machine was badly in need of repair. Electro Freeze agreed to rebuild it if he bought a new machine, since they expected the job to take a year. Nearly two years later, he put up a little sign in the shop for the folks who had been following the progress of the restoration (he had posted a couple of photos over the period when it was back at the factory) saying that it was just about ready to be shipped back.

                Here's where the story diverges. One version is that it was damaged in shipment and needed to go back to the factory to repair the damage. The other was that they never sent it back at all and he was simply ripped off.

                Either way, it never got back to Falls Church and the "second generation" machine is still in use. The second owner was really into the custard culture and was passionate about what he was serving. He admitted that once he got it set up right, he was making custard with the new machine that was as good as the original machine made when it was in good shape, but he really wanted the original machine back and operating, for the sake of history.

                The people who are running the place now (I think this may be a 4th ownership) just make frozen custard and it's pretty good. I've been going there for so many years (but only maybe ten times a year) so any changes have probably happened so slowly that I never noticed if there was a decline in quality or product. The only change I've noticed is the price. <g>

            2. re: MikeR

              Nielson's is excellent, and I prefer it to Dairy Godmother and Carl's.

              I agree with Aza Mila in re Rita's. It is definitely nothing like Nielson's, but is far better than most any soft-serve around. Rita's custard is much richer than say DQ, and has an excellent flavor.

              I'm 1 1/2 hours from Nielson's but only 10 minutes from Rita's so my Nielson's fixes are few and far between but Rita's is a frequent treat.

              1. re: MikeR

                I think the Frozen Dairy Bar has gotten much better in recent months. The last couple of times I went there, the flavor of the day was luxuriously rich and sensational.

              2. Maybe someone can shed some light on this and help me out. Since I was a kid my Mom has talked about the frozen custard they had when she was young. We're talking 1950-1965 range here. Every time we've had 'frozen custard' she says - nope, that's just thick ice cream. It's good, but it's not the same stuff. About 5 years ago, there was an article in the post about frozen custard and it lead me to take her to Carl's in Frederickburg ... she was very excited when she saw the ElectroFreeze machines because she remembered that's what they had when she was a kid. However, no touchdown. She said, again, not the same. I wrote it off to her memory just being better than the actual experience/taste was - but then I read that a few years earlier, the company that made the mix for the ElectroFreeze and other frozen custard had stopped making the product and now it was more like a rich version of a soft serve ice cream. So - my point and my question is - does any of this ring any bells for anyone else and if so, do you have any ideas where I can take her to get what might be frozen custard like in the 50s? Is Neilsen's a good bet?

                3 Replies
                1. re: dacwdc

                  Carl's is EXACTLY the same that it was in the '50's. The question really is, "is Carl's good frozen custard by 1950's standards?"


                  Silver Spring had Reindeer on Colesville road at Second Avenue which I once went to with my parents only a few days after stopping at Carl's. Reindeer was just better. We all thought so. So was the Polar Bear on Georgia Avenue near Piney Branch road. In truth Carl's was/is on par with Dairy Queen and Tastee Freeze in the '50's (which have NOTHING in common with what they serve today) which was a decent frozen custard but not exceptional. Today, Neilsen's is better than Carl's although they use a modern machine adaptation of an original ElectroFreeze.

                  In the '50's there were no "mixes." Everything was literally mixed IN the machine; milk, cream and flavorings were individually added. At some point I remember the Gifford's plant in Silver Spring having to buy a "mix" from Shenandoah Dairy. A law had been passed that no longer allowed a manufacturer of ice cream or custard to make it totally from scratch. Rather, they had to purchase a "mix" that they would use for their own ice cream. Of course they could tell the Dairy what to put into the mix; still, part of the process of making ice cream was taken away from them.

                  FWIW the best ice cream in the D. C. area then was the University Pastry Shop on Wisconsin Avenue near the Zebra Room with Wagshal's (NOT the Wagshal's that exists today) a close second. Wagshal's in the '60's was an extraordinary butcher shop that sold real homemade (i.e. made in store) ice cream. Calvert Pastry Shop on Wisconsin south of Calvert was really good, too, as was Avignon Freres on 18th street. But University was the best. It tasted exactly like what we would make at home in a White Mountain freezer using half heavy cream and half milk.

                  Reindeer was thought of by most as the best frozen custard in the area.

                  Go to Neilsen's. It's as good as the best in Wisconsin and St. Louis. It reminds me of Reindeer, too.

                  The Washington Post on Neilsen's (four stars):

                  1. re: Joe H

                    Thank you! That's exactly what I needed to know.

                    1. re: Joe H

                      Wow, did you bring me back to "the day." Used to go to all those places when not going to class, and the Calvert Pastry Shop, a/k/a the "all night B(akery) had the best parker house rolls, out of the oven at 1 am.

                  2. Nielsons vanilla custard is good !!!!

                    1. I know this is coming late, but a "flavor of a day" is a gimmick. What does it matter if Ted Drewes doesn't have a flavor of the day, if it has at least twice the potential flavors as Nielsen's every day of the week, with or without this "daily special". Sure, it might be important to you, but Ted Drewes is constantly adding new flavors to their menu.

                      Plus, check this out: Ted Drewes is the only custard to be featured on this show. None of the others. Nielsen's is just a copycat custard wannabe. It's good for what it is, but that's about all.

                      Typical conversation from people who move from St. Louis to Utah: "We heard there's this place called Nielsen's that copied Ted Drewes! We're going to go check it out!" 2 hours later: "Holy crap! That place sucks! And it's expensive even before you consider it sucking!"