“Custard: A detestable substance produced by a malevolent conspiracy of the hen, the cow, and the cook.”
Ambrose Bierce, American writer (1842-1914)
The Devil’s Dictionary (1906)
Ambrose Bierce’s scathing definition of custard is not necessarily an expression of his disdain for the popular frozen dessert, but an example of his lampooning of American culture and especially its lexicon. Starting in 1881, the American satirist began writing The Devil’s Dictionary in which he published alternate and usually quite acerbic definitions of common words. His biting wit and sardonic views earned him the nicknames “cackling king of cynics” and “Bitter Bierce.”
There are parts of the Midwest (the Milwaukee and St. Louis areas in particular) in which Bierce’s definition of custard would be considered sacrilege. Midwesterners feel so strongly about their custard, that an utterance of such blasphemy would be an occasion for a noose, a tall tree and a short drop. Their passion for frozen custard is akin to the love New Mexicans have for chile and never mind that winter temperatures throughout the Midwest can drop to near Arctic levels, custard is an year-round obsession.
Just as most New Mexicans have a strong antipathy toward “chili” from Texas, Midwesterners abhor the “franchised soft-serve fare pumped full of air” which passes off as custard in New Mexico (and throughout the fruited plain) and which Jane and Michael Stern denounce in their terrific tome 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late.”
The Sterns appreciate only the best custard—”dense and smooth, not as rich as ice cream, but even more luxurious.” In their sagacious estimation, the very best frozen custard in America is found at the legendary Ted Drewes, a Saint Louis institution for nearly eight decades. Despite copious cajoling by custard aficionados to franchise, Ted Drewes will not compromise on quality and remains a two store operation in Saint Louis.
Albuquerque native Kurt Nilson attended a Saint Louis area university where he discovered and fell in love with the premium frozen custard at Ted Drewes. Before moving back to the Duke City, he completed courses at the Frozen Dessert Institute so that he could bring one of his favorite parts of the Midwest back to his beloved high mountain desert home. He figured frozen custard would be perfect for those scalding Burque summer days.
Nilson launched Chillz in June, 2009, the height of the summer’s blistering onslaught. Situated directly across Central Avenue from the University of New Mexico, it’s two doors down from Walker’s Popcorn Company, another favorite of Midwest transplants who may have frequented Garrett’s Popcorn, a Chicago staple.
Though nearly eighty years behind Ted Drewes in experience, Nilson has actually two-upped the elder statesman of frozen custard by offering three flavors every day to Drewes’ one flavor (vanilla). Chillz features a flavor of the day in addition to chocolate and vanilla. The flavors of the day are inventive and exciting. Kurt has even taken to creating ballots on which customers can vote for the flavor of the day they’d next like to see. You can cast a vote for up to five choices on each ballot. The menu, scrawled on the wall, includes more than thirty toppings–from the unusual (gummy bears, cinnamon toast crunch, Lucky Charms) to the standards (hot fudge, toffee, Oreos).
Ask the affable Nilson what topping goes best with vanilla, chocolate or the flavor of the day and chances are high he’ll recommend raspberries. He should know, having a very personal relationship with the supplier. He obtains all his raspberries from Duke’s Raspberry Ranch in Edgewood which is owned by his mother. The ranch grows Dinkum raspberries, an “ever-bearing” variety which produces fruit in the summer as well as the fall. Chillz not only offers raspberries as a custard topping, but Nilson also sells his mother’s bottled raspberry-barbecue sauce (which is terrific, by the way).
There are some things you should know about frozen custard–the real stuff, the stuff Nilson makes and serves. Sure, it may look like ice cream, but there are vast differences. First, eggs are added to make frozen custard–1.4 percent egg yolk, in fact. Second, it is much lower in butterfat content than conventional ice cream: ten percent compared to sixteen percent. Through a churning process, the custard is blended with air to increase its volume, but it not nearly as airy as the franchised soft-serve ice cream served throughout New Mexico. Frozen custard isn’t churned as long as ice cream and isn’t nearly as cold. The result is a thicker and creamier texture than ice cream as well as a softer consistency.
Chillz makes its frozen custard fresh every day as well as its waffle bowls and cones. The menu also includes sundaes, shakes, floats, baked treats (cookies, Rice Krispy treats and brownies) and something which, at first browse, might sound unappetizing, but is quite good–concretes. In his phenomenal blog, Barry Popik describes concretes as “custard blended with any of dozens of ingredients. Concretes are blended so thick that they and their spoon do not fall out when their cup is turned upside down; servers often demonstrate this before handing customers their order.” If this description sounds familiar, you’ve probably had a Blizzard shake at Dairy Queen which is made with the soft-serve ice cream and not real frozen custard.
Real frozen custard–Chillz custard–is exquisite. It’s as smooth as a baby’s bottom with an amazing taste and texture. The chocolate has a rich, indulgent and expensive taste (but at a reasonable price). The raspberries provide a tangy yet surprisingly complementary contrast to the sweet (but not cloying), creamy, oh-so-good custard. This custard is so good you’ll want at least a couple of scoops; some will want even more. For them, Chillz has a gurgitator’s challenge few will surmount.
The Chillz Challenge: eight scoops, eight waffles, eight toppings in thirty minutes and your frozen feast is free. You’ll also get your photo prominently displayed on Chillz’ wall of fame, Web site, Facebook and MySpace sites. The current record-holder is “Big” Ben Monson who completed the Chillz Challenge in just over eleven minutes. He was the fourth in a handful of competitors who have surmounted the challenge for which, to date, no UNM athlete has manned or womaned up. Neither has Man Versus Food star Adam Richland who’s come no closer than Amarillo to the Duke City.
As of June 25th, 2010, about ninety intrepid eaters have attempted the Chillz Challenge, but only eight have successfully surmounted the creamy, flavor-rich challenge. That wouldn’t surprise the aforementioned Adam Richman who doesn’t ever eat ice cream or ice cream-like products during the “off season” (when he’s not taping his show). In fact, he finds sweet challenges the most difficult, particularly when they involve rich, dairy product.
Much as I love custard, it’s challenge enough to polish of a turtle sundae and it’s only got two scoops of the sinfully rich custard. My turtle sundae, made with one scoop of the exquisite chocolate and one scoop of the flavor of the day for June 26th, key lime, was wonderful, an exemplary rendition of the popular dessert. The key lime makes for an unconventional turtle sundae, but other ingredients (hot fudge, toasted pecans, whipped cream) are right out of the recipe book for sundaes.
In recent years, the influx of Midwesterners has added much to the Duke City dining scene. From the aforementioned Walker’s Popcorn Company to Pizza 9 (home of sloppy and sumptuous Chicago style Italian beef sandwiches) and now Chillz, Albuquerque may not yet compete with Chicago, but then the Windy City doesn’t have anything like our chile. They don’t have Chillz either. We do, and for that, Duke City diners will be grateful every time the mercury approaches the century mark and every day it doesn’t. At any time of year Chillz is a great destination.
Chillz Frozen Custard
2720 Central Ave
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 June 2010
1st VISIT: 6 February 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Chocolate Custard, Vanilla Custard