Toronto’s black summer treats, tested

It's time for a rousing round of "Good or bullshit?"


To quote the teenagers’ great poet, Steven P. Morrissey: “I wear black on the outside cuz black is how I feel on the inside.” If hanging out at the cemetery gates on a sunny day sounds like a good time to you, there’s good news: You can paint your physical insides to match the colour of your soul, thanks to this summer’s hottest new food fad.

Black-tinted desserts – chief among them charcoal laced “goth soft serve” – are everywhere. The trend was borne to us on the wings of Instagram, spurred to local popularity by cones found at shops like Morgenstern’s (in New York, of course) Little Damage (in LA, of course).

Ever since the trend landed in Toronto, we’ve been doing what we do: We dutifully queue. The biggest local beneficiary of the trend might be iHalo Krunch, a one-room soft-serve spot across from Trinity Bellwoods, where they crank out hundreds of black-on-black cones a day.

Reader, I try not to be the guy who dumps too hard on people having fun with food fads. Wait in line for your breakfast tacos, your unicorn fraps, your ramen burgers. Eat fancy trend food. Brag about it on the internet. Rub your butt on a gourd. Do whatever brings you joy.

But as I watch awareness of the trend spread, the same couple of questions keep coming up over and over: Can you actually taste the activated charcoal in these treats? More importantly, aside from the obvious ‘gram value, are any of these things even worth trying?

With that in mind, here’s the debut of a brand-new, maybe-possibly-recurring NOW feature: “Good or bullshit?”

Wong’s Ice Cream Black Sesame With Salted Duck Egg Ice Cream

Black sesame is the OG black dessert flavour, as anyone familiar with Asian cuisines can confirm. Ice cream and pudding are probably the two best-known applications, but at his newly-opened pan-Asian ice cream parlour, Ed Wong takes black sesame scoops a step further. He rolls in salted duck egg yolks, which traditionally pop up in Chinese mooncakes, for a little sweet-and-salty push-and-pull.

“It’s the only place in the world, as far as I can tell, that uses salted duck egg in ice cream,” Wong recently told me. “People go into it apprehensively, and then they try it and go ‘Oh wow! I’ll have a scoop of that.’”

So what’s it like? The black sesame base, as is the case with most of the flavours at Wong’s, packs plenty of flavour Wong’s the kind of guy to grind up all his ingredients from scratch in-house. The salted egg yolk tastes precisely as you’d imagine it might – picture the satin texture of a cooked egg yolk with a big ol’ saline punch – and it’s a wee bit disconcerting at first, but brings a curiously addictive quality.

It won’t be everyone’s thing. But me? I love it when my ice cream challenges me a little. Also, Wong says he’s trying to get people to call it “Chinese tiger tail,” which is just about the cutest damn thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

Good or bullshit?: Good!

Village Juicery Detox Tonic

This stuff was a highlight of the three-day juice cleanse I subjected myself to this past winter, an experience that was only vaguely unpleasant, but surprisingly illuminating. It’s an inky-black dram infused with such esoteric ingredients as milk thistle and stinging nettle – but for all your mouth knows, you’re just quaffing a delicious lemonade.

The star ingredient here is, of course, activated charcoal, which Village Juicery says is made from “virgin coconut shells burned at high temperatures to create a highly absorbent carbon with millions of tiny pores that bind to and help eliminate substances in your system.” Food-grade charcoal has little real flavour (save for a vague air of coconut) and surprisingly little in the way of texture, so the grittiness you might be imagining isn’t an issue.

Activated charcoal is often used medicinally to treat food poisoning and drug overdoses, so it’s earned itself a bit of a heath food halo. However, it’s worth noting that since the black food trend became big, experts have come out warning against consuming it recreationally. Some doctors say it can keep your body from properly absorbing prescription medicine, and is rumoured to cause intestinal blockage. So do your research before you start making activated charcoal a part of your healthy-eating (or junk food-eating) routine, and enjoy at your own risk.

Good or bullshit?: Good! (With a big ol’ asterisk.)

Vams Culture Tropical Goth Kombucha

How many bottles of this get sold on the strength of the name alone? That’s what got me, in large part because it’s the next closest thing to “patio goth,” which was invented by myself, bag designer Gillian Hyde and my roommate, Robb Johannes, the day that we got them to model for the cover of NOW’s 2015 Patio Guide. Turns out we had chosen the two least summery people in all of Toronto as our avatars of all things summer-related, and they were both forced to go spelunking deep inside their all-black wardrobes to retrieve the only brightly-coloured T-shirts they owned before coming down to the shoot and pretending they enjoyed things like umbrella-topped cocktails and sunlight.

We, of course, cannot take all the credit. The Tropical Goth subculture appears to be reasonably alive and well in corners of the internet like this one:

Anyway! Back to the ‘booch. Vams Culture is based in the east end, and distributes their scoby-licious wares to a few dozen locations around the city. The killer marketing, witchy appearance and tasty-sounding flavour profile listed on the label (mango, orange, apple, grape, plus green and black tea) were enough to make me overlook this one simple fact: I don’t really like kombucha.

As I took a sip of Tropical Goth’s sweet-yet-fizzy-yet-vinegary essence, it was confirmed to me: I still don’t really like kombucha. So I brought my bottle back to the office and promptly foisted it off on the first kombucha-enjoyer I could find: our editor and publisher, Alice. Her verdict: “Well, I think this is fabulous.” She took another couple of sips. “It tastes very active.”

And there you have it!

Good or bullshit?: Good! (Apparently)

iHalo Krunch Charcoal Soft Serve

iHalo Krunch, freshly opened across from Trinity Bellwoods, takes its name from the word “ihalo” (“to mix”), the word that gives halo-halo – the Philippines’ national dessert – its name. And though they don’t serve the fruity, beany, gelatinous stuff here, there is indeed a healthy mix of flavours happening on the menu, in the form of a dozen or so scooped ice cream flavours and four attention-grabbing soft serve options.

But let’s be real here – no one in the line outside, which has been known to wind around the block, is here for the hard ice cream. They’ve come for the inky black coconut-charcoal soft serve, complete with optional (read: obligatory) black-dyed waffle cone. You can get it solo, or twisted with three other flavours: Matcha, ube and red bean.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, I waited in line for about 10 minutes, watching person after person file out of the shop with black-stained lips, and ordered up a black-and-purple ube and charcoal twist cone (very Beetlejuice). First, I took the requisite Insta pics. Then I took a bite.

The black side was sweet, cold, and offered very little in the way of flavour, unless that flavour was President’s Choice Memories Of Seeing A Coconut One Time Maybe. The purple side was sweet, cold, and offered a vaguely vanilla biscuit taste that had nothing on the viscerally starchy, rooty flavour of the ube scoop I’d had the previous week at Wong’s. My cone looked pretty badass, but gave me little in terms of eating experience that a $1 serving of vanilla ice milk from McDonald’s wouldn’t have also done for me.

Still! I’d tried the famous thing! I’d successfully waited in line for less than 10 minutes to do so! I had to admit, I I wasn’t angry about my iHalo Krunch experience. That is, until five minutes after I’d procured my barely-softened ice cream, when the lump of marshmallow fluff piped into the bottom of the cone to prevent leakage gave way, and a rivulet of melted soft serve the colour of Bic ink began dribbling out the bottom of the cone and onto my clothes.

Vanilla doesn’t stain. Game, set, match: Vanilla.

Good or bullshit?: Bullshit. Sorry, everybody.

nataliam@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

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