Meet the Ice Cream Company Creating Flavors Inspired By Travel
Traveling during a pandemic is discouraged, but escaping with ice cream is an option.
I miss the sandy beaches of Thailand, the air of romance in Paris (paired with cups of espresso and gently folded crepes), the electricity of Tokyo. I miss traveling. Since the beginning of the outbreak of COVID-19, traveling for pleasure -- for the most part -- has been put on hold indefinitely. This is the correct decision to maintain everyone’s collective well-being that I wholeheartedly agree with. But I can’t help but daydream about my next adventure.
Luckily, with enough imagination, I do have the opportunity to travel via my tastebuds thanks to Wanderlust Creamery. Wanderlust is a Los Angeles-based ice cream shop with five brick and mortar stores and a pop-up each weekend at Downtown Los Angeles’s Smorgasburg. The entire menu, which rotates month-to-month, is inspired by different parts of the world. Currently, you can delight in a violet marshmallow flavor that’s reminiscent of Southern France, eat a honey nougat flavor swirled with pistachios inspired by Iranian gaz, or take a tropical vacation to Hawaii through Wanderlust’s pineapple sorbet flavored with lilikoi or passion fruit and li hing.
The concept is genius, especially when travel is particularly limiting right now. But Adrienne Borlongan, the co-founder of Wanderlust and food scientist behind all the magical flavors, wasn’t initially aiming for wistful concoctions.
“I didn’t decide ‘I’m going to make ice cream inspired by travel,’” she explained to me on a recent video call. “I just made flavors that I wanted to eat.” It just so happened that the flavors she wanted to experiment with extended beyond the typical chocolates and vanillas.
Making ice cream is in Borlongan’s DNA. Her grandfather worked for what she refers to as “the Dreyers or Breyers of the Philippines,” Magnolia Ice Cream. “He developed flavors for that company. It actually started off as just making regular American flavors, like vanilla and strawberry, because there’s a big American military presence in the Philippines,” Borlongan said. But Borlongan’s grandfather also experimented with Filipino ingredients, crafting cheese-flavored ice cream and ice creams studded with corn and jackfruit. Initially, these flavors were saved for staff and family -- but in a streak of confidence, Borlongan’s grandfather decided to release the flavors more attuned to his country. “After that, they never sold any American flavors. They took chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry off the menu because all of these other flavors outsold those,” Borlongan said. This boldness has influenced Borlongan’s own creations. “I don’t care if it’s a little out there or ‘weird’ -- there’s a lot of people who would love these flavors.”
“I don’t care if it’s a little out there or ‘weird’ -- there’s a lot of people who would love these flavors.”
Although ice cream-making runs in Borlongan’s blood, it wasn’t something she necessarily envisioned herself doing. “I always knew I wanted to do something in food. My mom would take me to garage sales and my sister would beg for a toy and I would beg for old cookbooks… I just didn’t know [my career] would be in ice cream.”
Borlongan wanted to go to culinary school, but took the route for nursing instead after being encouraged by her parents to follow that career path. In the back of her mind, however, food remained -- so two years into college, she decided to use her science credits and shift tracks to focus on a degree in food science. Throughout this, Borlongan also worked as a bartender and mixologist, which inevitably helped her when developing her own ice cream flavors.
“When you learn mixology, you learn that everything has to have a balance. When I was taught how to create a drink, you kind of think of it as a cross. At the top of the cross is strong, the bottom is weak -- that’s in terms of alcohol. And then on the left of the cross is sour and to the right of the cross is sweet,” she explained. “You’re always finding a balance between everything and I noticed I use that principal in every flavor I make.”
It’s true; Wanderlust’s Earl Grey flavor is creamy and fragrant from bergamot, but has a light bitterness thanks to the brewed black tea. The ube malted crunch is bursting with sweet purple yam flavor, but also has the milkiness of malt. The Japanese neapolitan -- a swirl of black sesame, hojicha tea, and matcha -- is nutty, grassy, and subtly sweet.
“What defines ‘regular ice cream’ depends on who and where in the world you ask,” Wanderlust’s website reads. Just because a flavor may feel unconventional to some, it’s nostalgic and comforting for others. That’s partially how Borlongan develops new flavors now.
“In the beginning, it was based off of places I’ve actually been and stuff I’ve actually eaten and tasted,” Borlongan said. But as the business took off, she hasn’t been able to set aside any time to travel, so she gathers inspiration from other people’s trips or memories -- whether it's her parents’ jaunt to Indonesia that brought forth a recent avocado coffee flavor, souvenirs and ingredients provided by her sister from moments abroad, or customer suggestions. “More recently, a lot of our flavor inspiration comes from other people, like customers coming in and being like, ‘I’m Armenian and this is what I grew up eating; you should make this into an ice cream.’” Borlongan takes these recommendations to heart. “When we make flavors that speak to other people’s culture, when people see an ice cream on the menu that represents their culture, they get so excited. It’s personal to them. I think that resonates more with our customer base.”
I ask Borlongan what it’s been like being a small business owner during a pandemic, knowing that the restaurant and service industry is being hit particularly hard right now. But Borlongan has some edge; Wanderlust perfectly serves the consumer who is dreaming of their next vacation once this is all over.
“I think throughout this pandemic, people are turning to things that comfort them. A lot of people in the ice cream industry [have] also seen an uptick in sales through the pandemic,” she explained. “I think people just want to be comforted and ice cream is an easy comfort. And [with] the whole travel thing, I think people are craving a way to escape. We do provide that, somehow.”
Though I can’t get on a cramped flight to Bali right now, or trek the mountains in Peru, or luxuriate in the rich hazelnut gelatos of Italy, Wanderlust Creamery is an entirely welcomed alternative.
Wanderlust Creamery currently operates five scoop shops in the greater Los Angeles area, and ships pints online to California, Arizona, and Nevada.