San Jose: Rolled ice cream craze draws crowds to Willow Glen’s Icicles

It was 9 p.m. on a weeknight, and the six jubilant co-workers from Union City were on a mission.

They borrowed a minivan from their friend Johanna Ota’s parents, drove 30 miles to San Jose, then piled out of the vehicle, laughing, to join a line of customers. An hourlong line.

They wanted ice cream.

Not just any ice cream — there’s plenty of that between Union City and San Jose — but rolled ice cream, the latest frozen craze to hit the Bay Area.

“It’s different, not your usual ice cream. It’s all about the texture,” explained Jamie Javier, who convinced her colleagues from Union City’s Community and Recreation Services department to make the trek south to the Icicles shop in the Willow Glen neighborhood.

Popularized by Thailand’s street vendors, rolled ice cream is made from scratch for each customer. Cream and flavorings are poured onto a super-cold pan, then the liquid is scraped and chopped, chopped, chopped — picture a Benihana chef in an icy environment — until it solidifies just enough to be spread out, wafer-thin, onto the whole sheet. Then it’s scraped into rolls 2 or 3 inches long and those rolls are carefully placed, end up, in an ice cream cup.

The trend migrated across the ocean to New York last year and Los Angeles this year.

In the Bay Area, a few ice cream shops have been dabbling in this new method, but Icicles makes rolled ice cream exclusively — even pasteurizing the milk on-site — which draws crowds to Lincoln Avenue late into the night.

“We’re unique. From step one to step 10, we make everything ourselves,” said Icicles co-owner Lit Leong, who became intrigued with rolled ice cream on his travels abroad. “We figured, why don’t we bring something from another culture here?”

Thanks to word-of-mouth and social media, the business has taken off. “We didn’t expect it to be this crazy. We expected (to serve) 100 to 200 a day. We didn’t expect 700 or 800,” said Leong, who employs 30 and stays open beyond closing time to accommodate all the customers in line.

With waits of up to an hour, rolled ice cream has become a sidewalk happening. Flavor combination ideas are shared. A musician stops by to play guitar. And part-time employee Qeashaun Thompson, a football player at Valley Christian High School, comes outside about every hour or so to work the crowd.

“You can call me Q. Or Hollywood, because once you get inside, it’s showtime!” Qeashaun hollers after hopping atop a picnic bench.

He surveys the 50 or more in line: “Is anyone from out of town? I’ll include Milpitas.” He greets some Oakland customers, tells anyone with a birthday that they’ll get their ice cream for free (otherwise it’s $6.50, but all fresh fruit and other toppings are included) and explains the latest “Cereal Killer” flavor options of Fruity Pebbles, Cap’n Crunch and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. He offers a riddle about math variables that is understood by only one youngster in line, then heads back inside to the ice cream counter.

Once customers order, they are called by name to watch their customized dessert made. An order of “Nutella & Chill,” for example, starts with fresh banana, a graham cracker, squiggles of the chocolate-hazelnut cream and a cup of cream. The whole process of scraping and rolling takes about five minutes. Then the staff adds free sauce and fresh fruit toppings, as desired. A freshly toasted marshmallow tops the sundae. Customers can pile on candies and other goodies themselves.

Many, many cellphone photos are taken as the Gotcha Matcha, Bravocado, Strawberry Fantasy and other flavors are created, and the staffers-turned-rock stars remind their new fans to post on Facebook or Instagram.

The entertainment value of the whole experience — indoors and out — is not lost on customers.

Leslie Panyanouvong and Man Tran, both of Union City, praise the staff’s charismatic personalities for making the time pass quickly. And they find the rolling process fascinating.

“It’s ice cream AND a show!” enthuses the Union City worker who goes by the name Speedy Vee. She’s the one who has the early shift the next day, opening the gym at 5 a.m., but orders a coffee ice cream nevertheless.

“The ice cream IS the show,” counters colleague Jacky Diec as he digs into his cereal crumb-laden choice.

For the Icicles owners, the long days in Willow Glen — from pasteurizing at 7 a.m. to power-washing the sticky sidewalk around 11 p.m. — are just the beginning. Leong and his business partner, Lynda Huynh, will roll out the concept on downtown San Mateo’s Third Avenue early in 2017. And they’re already eyeing Pleasanton sites for their first Alameda County shop.

Details: Icicles opens at noon daily at 1275 Lincoln Ave., San Jose and closes at 10:30 p.m. (depending on the line) Sunday-Thursday and 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.