When I was around seven years old, I unknowingly experienced one of the most important milestones of my life. That's right: I used a soft serve machine by myself for the first time. This happened at Bon Buffet, a mid-priced, all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant in Maywood, New Jersey. Like many buffets in suburban New Jersey, Bon Buffet specialized in all foods, but mostly the Chinese-American ones. It's a tale as old as time—a revelation revealed at a Chinese buffet in suburban New Jersey during the early '90s—but for some reason hardly anyone ever tells it. Well. I'm ready to tell it. Are you ready to lis—
[Tumbleweed rolls by, aggressively.]
When I was a kid, going to Bon Buffet meant gleefully eating every color of the fried-food-and-meat-nugget rainbow and washing it all down with Sprite from a translucent red plastic bucket that doubled as a cup. Because I had yet to understand the concepts of good nutrition or my own mortality, Bon Buffet was, naturally, one of my favorite restaurants. But the best part wasn't their rich palette of brown foods and gallons of potable sugar. It was the DIY soft serve sundae bar. Aka...
THE FONT OF ABSOLUTE POWER [echo] POWER POWER POWER [/echo]
Do you know what it feels like to pull the lever of a soft serve machine for the first time? To summon its bowels into action and hear them hum and churn with happiness-extruding potential? In the mind of my sheltered, prepubescent self, being the master of my own soft serve fate felt like the greatest power in existence. I had eaten soft serve before, but I had never controlled it. When I pulled that lever I wanted to yell I AM THE GOD OF SOFT SERVE, but I restrained myself because I craved the public's perception of me as a sane member of society. (And I still do, sort of.) And so, as the machine dropped a deuce into my metal dessert bowl, I kept my calm and showed no visible evidence of the emotions stirring within me. Which was good, because it would have potentially looked like this:
This moment of soft serve-derived happiness should've cemented itself into my soul for eternity, but over time I kind of...forgot about it. During my high school years I sought out a healthful diet (wuuut), and during my college years I sought the desire to return to eating a healthful diet (I failed). After college I became much more comfortable with applying the mantra of "we're all gonna die, so whatever" to my food choices.
And then in 2015, at the decrepit age of 29, I moved to Taipei. And I started to remember...
- Uhhmmm just some soft serves I ate from 7-Eleven.
I was surrounded by purveyors of cheap soft serve. 7-Eleven! Family Mart! ...Another 7-Eleven! It was the closest I had been to irresponsible amounts of soft serve since my buffet-going childhood. But this time I was an adult. With
So I ate some soft serve. Nobody knows how much. Nobody will ever know. I took photos of most of the soft serve I ate during my ten months in Taiwan, but not all of it. It seemed excessive after a while. I mean, eating the soft serve wasn't excessive, but taking photos of it was.
Before I get to the photos, here's a breakdown of the places where I ate the most soft serve in Taipei.
Taiwan is home to over five-thousand 7-Eleven locations. Not every location sells soft serve, but there must be thousands of soft serve machines spread out among them, making 7-Eleven the most reliable and widespread source of cheap soft serve in Taiwan. (I had a pet name for 7-Elevens that didn't serve soft serve: "shitty 7-Eleven.") Without entering the store, you can usually tell if a 7-Eleven sells soft serve by the presence of soft serve ads plastered outside the shop or a glowing soft serve-shaped beacon hanging near the entrance. With these clues, you can avoid the crushing disappointing of entering a 7-Eleven devoid of soft serve. (Having said that, even if the shop has a soft serve machine, there's a tiny chance the machine won't be ready to deliver the goods because it's still sleeping or whatever. In which case...sometimes life just blows.)
I ate a lot of soft serve from 7-Eleven because, aside from it being convenient, I couldn't resist their seasonal limited-time flavors and sundaes. (Right now they're offering an array of specials: caramel soft serve, melon soft serve, a caramel popcorn sundae, and a crispy rice chocolate sundae.) But I'd also go there even if they weren't offering a special flavor. Their standard "Hokkaido milk" flavor is quite good.
The prices of 7-Eleven's soft serve ranged from NT$35 to NT$50. Not the cheapest, but cheap enough. I generally preferred the soft serve at 7-Eleven over Family Mart's. 7-Eleven's usually tasted smoother and creamier with better flavor.
Another plus is that 7-Eleven's soft serve ads are sometimes super cute. Their cheesecake soft serve was my least favorite flavor, but the ad was my favorite.
The cow in the caramel soft serve ad was cute, too.
- Family Mart's strawberry soft serve in the making. One flavor I liked better at Family Mart than 7-Eleven.
Family Mart is another major convenience store chain that, during my time in Taiwan, often released the same limited-time flavors as 7-Eleven. I'd try them out of curiosity, but most of the time I thought 7-Eleven's versions tasted better.
Right now their special flavor is honey lemon soft serve for NT$35. ...Dammit, I'd love to try it.
The supermarket chain Matsusei eventually became my favorite spot for soft serve because it was the best for the price. They often had two-for-one deals—two soft serves for NT$30—a veeeery attractive offer to students like my friends and me. I also like the flavor and richer texture a bit more than 7-Eleven's. They only offered vanilla soft serve and never had special flavors, but my friends and I didn't get bored of it. We made many late-night trips to Matsusei for cheap-ass soft serve.
Unfortunately, Matsusei was bought out last year by another supermarket chain, as I found out when one of my friends in Taipei alerted me to our local Matsusei's demise. (She's good at keeping me up to date with the most important news.) Perhaps that they were nearly giving away soft serve was a sign that business was in trouble. I guess I'm glad I ate as much as I could while I had the chance.
8% Ice is an upscale gelato chain that also offers a small rotating menu of soft serve flavors. It was my most frequented spot for "fancy" soft serve. That is, soft serve probably made with natural-er ingredients as opposed to a slurry of stabilizers and dairy (not that I have anything against the latter). I'm only mildly ashamed to admit that I prefer the heftiness of the stabilized stuff to the lighter, cleaner-tasting soft serve from 8% Ice and other "artisanal" soft serve purveyors. But I like trying new flavors, and NT$100 per cone is a reasonable price to pay for an occasional treat. Flavors I've seen at 8% Ice include brown sugar sea salt, matcha, Formosa Ruby Black Tea, blueberry, and melon.
The biggest let-down is the cone. It's a wafer cone reminiscent of cardboard. Even better, it has a tendency to leak melted soft serve out of its tip unless you scarf it down quickly. Nobody likes cone rot. 8% Ice ought to use a better cone to match the soft serve. I'd pay more for it.
PS: Towering jumbo soft serve = nope
In Taiwan, you might see impossibly tall cones of soft serve for suspiciously low prices at night market-type places.
THESE SOFT SERVE CONES ARE SHIT.
Ok, maybe try it once for the photo-op, but judging from the first and last time I tried one of these cones in Danshui, that should be the end of it. The one I tried tasted like water that was flavored accidentally. It didn't taste like something that had the ability to maintain a solid form. You can read more about that Danshui trip here.
If you've ever eaten a soft serve tower that tasted good, let me know.
Ok, ON TO THE PHOTOS!
A whole bunch of photos of soft serve I ate in Taipei (and some in Tainan), in chronological order
- September 9, 2014: Formosa ruby black tea soft serve from 8% Ice.
- September 20, 2014: Milk soft serve from Milk Beard (NT$70).
- October 1, 2014: Milk soft serve from 7-Eleven. 7-Eleven was having a two-for-one deal on soft serve that week (two cones for NT$35). With the help of my friends Charlotte and Eric, I took it as a challenge to see how much soft serve I could eat in one week. ...I do not recommend doing this.
- October 2, 2014: Milk soft serve from 7-Eleven. Two nights in a row.
- October 6, 2014: Chocolate and milk swirl from 7-Eleven. I had abstained from eating soft serve for four days. My body was ready.
- October 7, 2014: Milk from 7-Eleven. And thus the week of too much soft serve came to an end. ...JK, I would continue eating too much soft serve for another seven months.
- October 8, 2014: I switched to Family Mart to try their vanilla soft serve. Some may call me a traitor. IT'S CALLED "RESEARCH." Family Mart's vanilla wasn't bad, but it wasn't good as 7-Eleven's milk soft serve. Additionally, it was far less photogenic. I can't imagine a 7-Eleven employee would ever serve as sloppy of a pile. It would be too shameful.
- October 10, 2014: Milk from 7-Eleven.
- October 12, 2014: Kiwi and strawberry twist from Smoothie House. This shaved ice shop tried to get into the soft serve game. The shop is closed now.
- October 13, 2014: Vanilla from Matsusei.
- October 16, 2014: Matcha and brown sugar sea salt twist from 8% Ice.
- October 17, 2014: Limited-time green tea soft serve at Family Mart. It was only NT$20 because marketing. It was fine.
- October 19, 2014: Milk from 7-Eleven.
- October 20, 2014: Vanilla from Matsusei.
- October 22, 2014: Limited-time caramel from 7-Eleven. This cone is uncharacteristically uneven. 7-Eleven employees usually swirl the cones with surgical precision. ...But it all ends up in the same place, so who cares. This flavor was one of the better limited-time flavors.
- October 27, 2014: Limited-time caramel from 7-Eleven. 7-Eleven and Family Mart tend to compete with the same limited-time flavors. I think it was also...ok. But not as good as 7-Eleven's.
- November 7, 2014: Caramel from 7-Eleven.
- November 17, 2014: Green tea from IOU Cafe. My friends and I were reeled in by the two-for-one deal (two for NT$100). We should've stuck to 7-Eleven.
- December 20, 2014: Limited-time cheesecake from 7-Eleven. I wanted to like this, but it was...ehhh. The flavor felt monotonous after too few licks.
- January 24, 2015: Chestnut from Quan Wei Jia in Tainan (NT$80).
- January 25, 2015: Black tea from Fort Zeelandia in Tainan (NT$39). Not bad soft serve, even better sugar cone.
- January 25, 2015: Vanilla soft serve in a puffed corn tube from 拐杖冰淇淋 Guai Zhang Bing Qi Lin in Tainan. In under an hour, I went from sugar cone to corn tube. The soft serve gods were clearly screwing with me. Corn tube soft serve is some sort of trend from South Korea that for whatever reason has also planted itself in Tainan. Besides that it looked too dumb not to try, it was also two-for-one (two for NT$90), which meant I subjected one of my friends to eating one of these as well. It's not good, unless you think eating styrofoam filled with soft serve is good.
- February 6, 2015: Vanilla from Maji Square.
- February 6, 2015: Limited-time strawberry from 7-Eleven. Disappointingly light on the strawberry flavor.
- February 21, 2015: Milk from 7-Eleven. My friends Christine and Gordon were visiting from the US. As I was their guide around Taipei, it was my duty to feed them soft serve. It's not like you can get soft serve in the US. ...I was not a professional guide.
- February 22, 2015: Limited-time strawberry from Family Mart. This was a rare case of Family Mart tasting better than 7-Eleven. Their version wasn't as creamy, but it was more flavorful. The strawberry wasn't added by default; it was a limited-time thing you could get if you bought the soft serve at a certain time of day. That's some gold-star marketing. Watching the Family Mart employee place a perfectly symmetrical, unblemished strawberry atop my cone of soft serve was like witnessing the crowning of a new king. Where other soft serve memories will fade, the Coronation of Strawberry Soft Serve of Family Mart will maintain a rank of inflated importance in my brain until I die.
- February 28, 2015: Caramel from 7-Eleven.
- March 1, 2015: Unknown flavors at 8% Ice.
- March 5, 2015: Unknown flavor from this stand on Shifen Old Street. The soft serve was all right, but more importantly LOOK, ANOTHER SUGAR CONE! SO EXCITE!!!!
- March 27, 2015: Unknown flavors at 8% Ice. (Also, hi, Ziying!)
- April 12, 2015: Vanilla from Matsusei. Plus Max in the background!
- April 15, 2015: Vanilla from Matsusei.
- April 18, 2015: Vanilla from Wellcome. Considering the soft serve was only NT$20, I had low expectations. I'm not sure it even met those low expectations.
- April 19, 2015: Vanilla at Matsusei. I didn't see the point of photographing the same cones of vanilla soft serve every time I went to Matsusei, so now it's HUMANS WITH SOFT SERVE, in this case, Charlotte and Eric.
- April 24, 2015: Vanilla at Matsusei with Charlotte, Xiangtai, and Eric. We were giving a final farewell to Eric before he went to the airport to leave Taiwan, hence his luggage in the background. Some people say farewell with drinks; we say it with soft serve.
- May 1, 2015: Limited-time Hokkaido milk caramel nut sundae from 7-Eleven (NT$50). Not bad, aside from it melting seemingly super quickly.
- May 2, 2015: Vanilla from Matsusei with Hsupeng and Xiangtai. My ideal Saturday night.
- May 9, 2015: Sour plum soft serve from Taipei Expo's Farmers Market. Yesss, even the farmers' markets in Taipei have soft serve.
- May 27, 2015: Vanilla from Matsusei with Stephanie and Xiangtai. We only wanted three soft serves, but since they had a two-for-one deal we got four soft serves. I know. Life is tough.