In the former Lena Street home of La Lecheria’s ice cream artistes, someone’s churning out something a little different.
Sunset Swirl’s ice cream is rich, decadent — and dairy-free.
Of course, visitors on the Plaza may have already sampled cups and bars from Sunset Swirl’s distinctive orange and magenta cart, which first popped up there last summer and just started making appearances again for its second year. But the Lena Street storefront gives the ice cream — and its creator, Jennifer O’Brien — a permanent place to showcase Sunset Swirl’s array of hard ice creams and sherbets.
But if you haven’t yet sampled a scoop, there are a couple of things to know. First and foremost, dairy-free definitely doesn’t mean indulgence-free.
“When people hear ‘vegan,’ they think health food,” O’Brien said as she gave a mini-tour of several of the half-dozen or so flavors at the shop, which had its grand opening May 25. “I’m not trying to create health food. This is a treat. I want to give people that experience of enjoying something delicious without the dairy.”
The key to that deliciousness is combining the fat and a combination of liquid and solid sugars in such a way that she avoids the dreaded ice crystals — and creates a consistency that somehow mimics its milk-based alternative. The texture and mouthfeel of Sunset Swirl’s ice cream is surprisingly similar to a traditional dairy version — and that’s by design, O’Brien said. And because it’s dairy-free, it doesn’t come with the heaviness that’s sometimes associated with milk-based ice cream.
Another thing to know: O’Brien’s ice creams aren’t just garden-variety flavors added to one particular milk-alternative base. These are artisanal pairings, where each flavor is carefully chosen to complement the base ingredient. Put simply: “To me, not every plant-based milk goes with every flavor,” she said.
So, for example, O’Brien uses the warmth and nuttiness of almond milk to add richness to her chocolate and rocky road ice creams (the latter is studded with vegan marshmallows and chocolate chips). But for her mint chip ice cream, she turns to coconut milk — using peppermint extract for the flavoring and the green superfood spirulina for a pop of minty color. She’s found a blend of coconut and cashew milks work best in her vanilla ice cream.
She also offers sherbets in strawberry and blood orange varieties, using a combination of coconut and fruit purees. The blood orange variety, icier and tangier than the hard ice creams, is a nostalgic nod to O’Brien’s childhood memories — and the love of summer sweets that inspired her business.
“It’s like an orange Creamsicle — the quintessential summertime flavor,” said O’Brien, 41. She grew up in Philadelphia and spent summers with her family on the Jersey shore. “Ice cream is a part of all my memories of summer: those mom and pop shops, going after dinner to get ice cream.”
That sense of childlike fun is echoed in toppings like toasted coconut and purple (and vegan) sprinkles and the housemade “magic shell” peanut butter and chocolate toppings that freezes into a hard coating after employees drizzle it over top.
She and her husband — who is lactose-intolerant — have a 4-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl who loves to cook and is one of O’Brien’s culinary inspirations. “I run flavors past her!” she said.
After living in Hawaii and Southern California, O’Brien ran her own chiropractic business, Core Chiropractic, in Santa Fe for 10 years. But after taking a course in Austin, Texas, on dairy-free ice cream making, she became passionate about the project.
She obtained her plant-based nutrition certification and decided to apply to be a vendor on the Plaza. The timing was perfect: The five-year window had just opened for applications. After whipping up a batch for the judges, her product passed the taste test, and she began selling prepacked cups of ice cream and pops in May 2018.
It wasn’t long before she learned about the potential opening on Lena Street in the spot occupied by La Lecheria (which is now selling its gourmet ice cream on Marcy Street). And she had the perfect business-space partner: Amanda Hatherly of Chamisa Chocolate, who now crafts and sells her small-batch artisan chocolate in the cozy digs as well. (You can also find her chocolate at the Railyard Artisan Market, Chocolate+Cashmere on Palace Avenue and online at chamisachocolate.com.)
“I love Jen’s approach to ice cream,” Hatherly said. “Dairy ice cream is a treat that many avoid because of the milk in it — avoiding it for health, environmental or ethical reasons. So having delicious dairy-free ice cream that is locally made is a wonderful addition to the Santa Fe culinary scene.”
In addition to the shop and the pushcart, Sunset Swirl also is available at La Montañita Co-op. Next up: O’Brien hopes local restaurants will add her ice creams to their dessert menus, offering diners a dairy-free dessert option. She sells 2- or 3-gallon tubs and 6-ounce packaged cups for restaurants, small scoop shops and events.
“There are so many great restaurants here,” she said. “I would love to fill that niche.”