A word of advice to anyone trying to critique a dozen chocolate milk shakes at one time: drive like hell.
Unlike with a wine tasting, where bottles might benefit from a little pre-sipping respiration, milk shakes don’t age well. A shake tastes best when it is sipped fresh, straight from the frosty metal tin in which it was blended. If you’re going to transport a shake from its natural soda-shop habitat to, say, the conference room of an alternative weekly newspaper, where you’re going to judge it against 11 other shakes, it’s going to take near-Swiss timing to get contenders from as far south as Shake’s Frozen Custard on Granny White Pike and as far north as Mike’s Ice Cream Fountain on Lower Broad to the table simultaneously, in a semi-solid state. If you dawdle, particularly on a late-summer day, you may as well be comparing room-temperature pediatric supplements, which explains why Scene writers were recently speeding along the Broadway-Hillsboro corridor with Styrofoam cups full of milk shakes, like so many U.N.O.S. couriers with coolers full of kidneys.
The mission was straightforward: identify the best chocolate shake in Nashville, a title previously bestowed—at least sentimentally if not scientifically—on Vandyland. For decades, the beloved midtown eatery cornered the shake market with its blend of Purity vanilla ice cream and a top-secret chocolate syrup made on the premises. Since Vandyland closed shop in May, Nashvillians have been bickering about whether Rotier’s or Elliston Place Soda Shop now serves the best shake, as if one of the two surviving grease-stained lunch counters must, by default, hold the title.
Which leads to a second piece of advice: when looking to anoint a supreme shake, put aside your preconceptions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the recent survey revealed that neither of the assumed heirs deserves the crown. Surprisingly, three of the favorite entries came from chain stores, underscoring an inconvenient truth about big-business restaurants: they wouldn’t be chains if they didn’t have something people wanted.
Research revealed another unsettling mythbuster: homemade ice cream does not necessarily make for good shakes. In the shakedown, the sole contender made with homemade scoops degenerated into a dairy drip before even landing on the testing slab. At the other extreme, the Sonic shake—much maligned for coming from a fast-food chain—scored surprisingly high for its ability to retain thickness during transportation. Thick shakes are good shakes, so don’t go thumbing your nose at all that carrageenan and xanthan gum in the big brands.
What you can bank on is that you get what you pay for. The top four finishers cost a combined $20, with the third-place specimen costing more than $6—no small price for a dessert that isn’t served on fire. Though, let it be noted that the first-place shake cost $4.32 with tax, making it not only the best, but also a relative bargain.
The challenge in scoring chocolate shakes, as opposed to comparing standard vanilla varietals, is in reconciling two major variables: texture and flavor. In a taste-test of vanilla shakes, you could just as easily taste the base vanilla ice creams in their natural states and decide whether you prefer, for example, the Wholesome Farms ice cream used at Dalt’s or the proprietary, high-butter-fat, soft-serve mix at Bobbie’s Dairy Dip. But with chocolate shakes you have to tease out chocolate flavor from overall shake performance. Take, for example, the Maggie Moo’s shake, a rich, dark-brown confection with a hint of coconut, the cool summertime stand-in for a steaming cup of thick chocolat. While Maggie scored high in consistency and flavor overall, some judges penalized her for being—wait for it—too chocolaty, which may very well have cost her the title. (Arguably, such feedback calls into question the validity of the whole survey, but opinions were generally consistent with regard to the top five, so the results were certified.) And the winners are:
1. Noshville 2. Maggie Moo’s3. Ben & Jerry’s 4. Dalt’s 5. Bobbie’s Dairy Dip
That’s right, the Hatfields and McRotiers can finally give it a rest: the best chocolate shake in Nashville is scooped nowhere near the Rock Block. It’s made Big Apple-style in a New York deli.
“To make us a traditional deli, it was one of those things that had to be authentic,” says Glen Smith, who has dipped thousands of Noshville shakes over the last decade. To replicate the taste of a New York delicatessen chocolate shake, Noshville blends three scoops of Purity vanilla ice cream with two cups of whole milk. The defining ingredient is a squeeze of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup imported from New York.
The result is thick, chocolaty and wins the Scene’s vote for best chocolate shake in town.
So, as Vandyland hands over to Noshville the title of Best Chocolate Shake, the perfect recipe emerges: Purity ice cream and a distinctive chocolate sauce. With any luck, someday Vandyland chocolate syrup will be available by the bottle.