I have a theory I’ve been mulling over for years, one that I knew to be true the moment I uttered it. There are only two kinds of people: Those who like Van Leeuwen, and those who like Ample Hills.
Yes, there are a plethora of outstanding fancy ice cream choices in New York, including ones that are arguably superior to either company, but few have grown to be as widely available as Brooklyn-based shops Van Leeuwen and Ample Hills. The two brands also incidentally have some of the most fervent fans in the city — ones who, according to my absolutely correct opinion based on years of ice cream expertise, tend to be total opposites in their tastes, and are ready to fight about it.
People who love Greenpoint-based Van Leeuwen say they prize the chewy yet creamy texture and the simple yet elegant flavors. When the trucks started rolling in 2008, flavors like Earl Grey tea exemplified the ethos: Here’s this slightly savory and earthy flavor, unexpectedly put into prime form via ice cream. There’s also a vanilla, but the best vanilla. There’s a strawberry, but the best strawberry. It fit right in with the late-aughts Brooklyn culture of ingredient-focused, farm-to-table foods with minimalist aesthetics, and over time it’s also become known for vegan flavors that have escaped the trappings of most dairy-free frozen treats.
Fans of Ample Hills Creamery, on the other hand, are devotees of dessert as excess and whimsy, and think that ice cream should never, ever be taken too seriously. Some of the most popular flavors boast cheeky names that prioritize fun: Ooey Gooey Butter Cake, I Contain Breakfast Foods, Salted Crack’d Caramel. And almost nothing comes with ice cream alone; the Prospect Heights-born company, open since 2010, spends just as much time creating mix-ins for its flavors. Rice krispies treats; chocolate-dipped, butter-cooked saltine crackers; and St. Louis-style butter cake are among the ingredients. The aesthetic matches, too. Each pint is overloaded with illustrations, with nary an empty space to be seen.
As my colleague Emma Alpern says, Van Leeuwen is from wellness-era NYC, while Ample Hill hails from the cupcake one.
Ask a fan of one about the other, and the results are polarizing. Those who love one often hate the other.
A sampling just from my colleagues:
“I hate Ample Hills.”
“I don’t want to make this public but I actually don’t even know anyone who likes Ample Hills.”
“Van Leeuwen is boring.”
“Maybe a child would like Ample Hills.”
“Ample Hills is so heavy and creamy in the worst way possible.”
“Ample Hills is way too sweet.”
“Something about Van Leeuwen feels so snooty to me!!! It’s like ‘Oh yes, I shall deign to eat this peasant food but make it taste like tea, or sesame seeds.’”
“A whole bowl of ice cream without mix-in’s or toppings is so boring.”
Indeed: Van Leeuwen lovers see themselves as connoisseurs of craft, and Ample Hills devotees as tasteless imbeciles, while Ample Hills lovers see themselves as modern-day Dionysuses of ice cream, and Van Leeuwen devotees as vibe-killing snobs.
It is, of course, possible to simply enjoy eating both ice creams, or even to not have a taste for either. However, to be a true diehard, the choice is clear: You can really only be one.