To look around Manhattan, you'd think that the soft-serve world begins and ends with Tasti D-Lite and its fat-free brethren. They are certainly cold and smooth, and somewhat satisfying, particularly if you're more concerned with fitting into your Seven jeans than about flavor. But it's hard to get too excited about a frozen dessert that advertises itself as, among other things, "A Source of Oat Fiber."
Fortunately, the pump doesn't stop there. There are still a few places that make true frozen custard, the original soft-serve ice-cream, with the legally mandated egg-yolk content and superior mouthfeel. But there are far fewer frozen-custard stands than there used to be, and all too often, quality is an afterthought: Most have long since switched to a standardized product from a powdered mix. There's always Mister Softee, 600 trucks strong, which delivers a swirly product that's pleasantly creamy but rather light on flavor. (It's a challenge to tell the vanilla from the chocolate, except by color.) It's altogether not a bad snack experience -- particularly for something stirred up in the back of a truck. You probably loved it as a teenager, but once your palate has been conditioned by Ben & Jerry, you can't go home again.
No, there's only one place to find frozen custard that aspires to be more than just another cold cone. "It's a shame, because this is the place where it was invented," says Alan Silberman. He's right, and he's the man to know: Silberman is co-founder of Custard Beach (Grand Central Terminal, lower level, 212-983-9155). And so Custard Beach, completely trumping the rest with serious flavorings and real eggs, is creating a past that never was, elevating a cheap thrill into a silken triumph. Its menu of 30-odd flavors (crème brûlée, dulce de leche) would leave the old men of Coney Island baffled. At least until they started licking.