Few things are more American than a checkered-floor, ’50s-style mom-and-pop store that sells substantial sandwiches, huge hamburgers and seven-scoop milkshakes. Well, actually, a place like that right next to a gun store and across from a KFC would be more American. And much to the surprise of Sarina and me, such a place exists: Leatherby’s .
As we stepped into Leatherby’s Family Creamery (2333 Arden Way), it looked as if half of America decided to grab a bite of ice cream with us; the number of talking families crammed into every booth and table overwhelmed us.
Luckily, this all-American shop supersized on seating, too. Sarina and I barely got to admire the humongous red poster on the window advertising Caleb’s Carnival Shake (a cotton candy ice cream shake with a marshmallow sauce rim topped with a mountain of cotton candy and a rock candy lollipop); the massive mural on the back wall depicting the countryside; or the gigantic gumball machine next to us before an employee assigned us our seats.
We plopped down on the sticky white chairs to examine the five menus (two regular menus, two for customers 10 and under or 65 and over, and one drinks menu) covering most of our tiny table, which was crammed between a booth and a walkway.
Everything at Leatherby’s is larger than life — from the 4-foot-long cutouts of ice cream on the wall to the jars of ice cream sauce customers can buy — so the 25 ice cream flavors and 23 styles (including banana splits, sundaes, shakes and “special creations”) were no surprise.
Still, many of the items had no description besides a name and the occasional “Now larger” label next to it, making the menu hard to navigate, especially since I had never visited Leatherby’s.
Thankfully, our server (Leatherby’s has both table and counter service, but Sarina and I did not see the ordering spot at the counter and thus opted for table service) was ready to answer our stream of questions.
Although the “#1 seller”—Alan’s Black & Tan sundae (a “famous creation” consisting of vanilla and toasted almond ice cream with caramel sauce and chocolate fudge)—intrigued me, seeing the size of a similar sauce-covered spectacle (as long as an adult’s head and as wide as a sizeable arm) served at the table behind us compelled us to order the medium-sized Rachel’s Famous Sundae.
Rachel’s Sundae has a choice of two flavors of ice cream and one topping (ranging from sauces to fresh fruit) served with whipped cream and a cherry, as well as chopped almonds for an additional $1.65, or brownie bits, a banana or more whipped cream or sauce for $1.95.
We opted for chocolate mint and coffee Oreo ice cream with chocolate fudge sauce. It took a few minutes for our sundae to arrive — still quick when we considered the sheer number of people in the shop, including a birthday party that took up half the seating area.
While we waited, Sarina and I analyzed our surroundings. The vintage, family-owned feel certainly stood out. The blue-and-white-striped banners above the metal ovens and fridges in the open kitchen seemingly transformed back into the ’50s. Framed portraits of the Leatherby family, who operated the Iowa cafe that was the inspiration for Leatherby’s, hung above an ancient freezer filled with purchasable ice cream tubs.
But Leatherby’s menu and clientele have kept up with the times. Of all the shops Sarina and I visited, Leatherby’s was the most aware of dietary restrictions.
It removes the shaved almond from its sundaes to help those with nut allergies and has a range of dairy-free and low-sugar ice creams.
The diversity of customers is remarkable as well.
“There’s every kind of person here!” Sarina said.
Families and friend groups of all ages and number chatted away while attempting to scrape out boatloads of ice cream, fudge and whipped cream (occasionally actually served in a miniature boat). The air was filled with laughter and glee.
About 10 minutes after we placed our order, a tall glass of ice cream arrived, smothered in whipped cream; the saucer was already covered in pools of shiny fudge sauce and melting coffee oreo ice cream.
If the Parlor’s ice cream doughnut sandwiches were a challenge to eat, Rachel’s Sundae was a task fit for Achilles himself. Every second seemed to be a second wasted for the dripping ice cream and fudge — our small spoons were unfit for the ginormous glass.
But after the initial “wow!” factor wore off, the ice cream itself didn’t spark the same wonder. Though Sarina enjoyed the coffee Oreo, I didn’t feel the flavor was strong enough, and the Oreo pieces quickly went soft in a sea of sauce. The ice cream was airy but perhaps a little too much so. The fudge sauce was well made, but it overwhelmed the dish.
The mint ice cream was buried at the bottom of the glass (a problem that, Sarina noted, could have been solved by converting the dish into a boatful of ice cream, but this wasn’t an option for Rachel’s Sundae), so it took many, many scoops and digs to reach it.
When we finally hit some spots of green, the coffee Oreo and fudge sauce were so melted into the glass that the resulting moss-colored sludge tasted a little like everything, with no strong mint flavor to be found.
After finishing less than a third of the sundae, Sarina and I had had enough; we asked for the bill and left.
On our way out the store, Sarina and I asked for a sample (a benefit of counter service) of Easter egg, one of Leatherby’s eight special flavors.
While the stormy blue ice cream mixed with candy Easter egg shells and shards of dark chocolate made a mesmerizing picture, a lick of the sample affirmed my fear that, without the toppings and super sizing, Leatherby’s ice cream just isn’t up to par.
“What is this?” Sarina exclaimed, her face wrinkling in disgust. “Is it grass?”
To me, the sample didn’t even have the freshness of lawn clippings — it tasted like eggs, particularly rotten ones, with the occasional bland fragment of candy egg shell.
“Can you get PTSD from an ice cream flavor?” Sarina wondered as we threw our unfinished sample spoons into the trash.
Maybe so, but not every part of Leatherby’s was traumatizing. Stopping into the store is an experience; the attentive staff, old-timey feel and crazy, colossal ice cream creations are enough to draw masses in. Sarina even said she would try the coffee Oreo ice cream again.
However, the sweet treat itself left a bitter taste in our mouths.
—By Héloïse Schep