Nothing helps beat the heat on a sweltering Delta day like a good old-fashioned frozen treat. Sure, you find just that at Baskin-Robbins, Ben & Jerry's, and other chain ice-cream eateries around town. But you won"t find quite the same funky charm we discovered at these homegrown, mom-and-pop shops. It was a tough job, sampling the goods, but we did our duty -- and savored every bite. Take a look at what these "shake joints" are dishing up, and enjoy the tour.
Velvet Cream2290 Highway 51 South, Hernando, MS, 662-429-6540
Don"t feel bad if you"re overwhelmed by the menu at the Velvet Cream. The oldest "fast-food" joint in Hernando has more shake, freeze, and slush combinations than you can shake a cone at, and the locals love them for it.
With all the usual suspects, including banana splits, strawberry shortcake, and soft-serve cones, there are a few head-scratchers as well. With inspired names such as Mule Slobber (Sprite and vanilla ice cream), the Tahitian Medicine Man (coconut and lime freeze), and the inexplicably titled Turkey With A Flashlight (banana or orange juice, depending on who you ask, with vanilla ice cream) the Velvet Cream keeps the choices -- and the food offerings -- fresh.
The 800-square-foot burger and shake Mecca, owned by Tommy Flinn, has been dishing out burgers and onion rings, fries, even fried dill pickles, with a smile for 43 years.
The Velvet Cream might offer plenty of variety, but one thing it doesn't have is seating, inside or out. For those who are feeling particularly lazy, there's a drive-thru window. On a steamy June night, about 20 or so folks are patiently waiting for their orders, chatting amicably with one another. "Thirty years? Is it 30 we've been coming here honey?" one man asks his wife.
"We've only been married for 22, so it better not be," she laughs.
One thing customers all agree on, however, is the name. "Anyone from around here calls this place The Dip," grins a man in line. "I probably wouldn't even know what you were talking about if you called it the Velvet Cream!"
110 Pleasant Hill, Nesbit, MS, 662-429-0208
"People ask us if those are the bears that stood across from the Mid-South Fairgrounds," says Amanda Broadway, referring to the old Fairview Drive-in. "They're not. Those actually came from St. Louis."
The concrete polar bears -- frozen forever in the act of hurling snowballs at Nesbit traffic -- have helped customers find Happy Daze since it opened 13 years ago. The place was built by Joyce Reaves, a fan of the old Happy Days TV show. It's now owned by her nephew, Jimmy Scott, and managed by Broadway.
Happy Daze offers more than just frozen treats. Customers can fill up on plate lunches, sandwiches, chili, butterfly shrimp, and even stuffed jalapeno peppers. The menu asks, "Are you REALLY hungry?" and anybody who is can try their footlong, half-pound hotdog -- quite a mouthful, to say the least.
Happy Daze sells malts, sundaes, banana splits, and shakes in all the usual flavors plus purple cow (grape juice and vanilla ice cream), and pink elephant (pink lemonade and ice cream). Then there are the specials. The King Shake is a mix of chocolate ice cream, peanut butter, and bananas, "like something Elvis would have," says Broadway. The Killer Shake -- in homage to Nesbit resident Jerry Lee Lewis -- is swirled ice cream, caramel, nuts, and chocolate syrup. Finally, since Nesbit is just a few miles from Tunica, there's the Casino Loser Shake, made with vanilla ice cream, thick fudge, and whipped cream. "It's very rich," the menu explains, "even if you aren't."
Customers can use the drive-in, sit outside at concrete tables beneath a bright purple awning, or dine inside.
"We have a lot of Elvis memorabilia that Jerry Lee Lewis has signed and given us over the years," says Broadway. That includes record albums, mounted photos of Lewis and Presley, and even a framed Happy Daze menu inscribed by Jerry Lee, "I love your food. It's the best."
Who's to argue with a guy known as The Killer?
1657 Wells Station, 619-8206
Deputy Barney Fife, of the old Andy Griffith Show , harbored bitter memories of a girl named Vicki Harms. It seems she bit off the pointed end of his sno-cone and sucked all the syrup out.
That would be hard to do at Jerry's Sno-Cones, since the sweet scoops of slushy shaved ice come in sturdy styrofoam cups. What may be hard is choosing from more than 50 syrup flavors -- from banana to blueberry, grape to granny apple, and one that blends bubble gum and snow cream to make the John Deere flavor and signature green color. "My son came up with that," says David Acklin, who bought the 1970s-era shop from L.B. Clifton a couple of years ago. Its clientele includes residents in the Berclair neighborhood, as well as those from farther out. Says Acklin: "We've got people who have moved to Germantown and beyond who still come see us."
Named after Clifton's adopted child -- a name the new owner hasn't changed, along with the tradition of closing on Sundays -- Jerry's is housed in a pastel-painted little block of a building with the unique claim of having two self-serve car-wash lanes attached -- and they both work. But the real draw here are sno-cones and combinations of the syrupy stuff layered with soft-serve ice cream. Among the latter is Hurricane Elvis, whose moniker derives from a certain fruity-flavored New Orleans drink and a little storm that once blew through Memphis. Another is Sno-Cone Supreme. Try that with chocolate ice cream and raspberry syrup for a killer combination.
Jerry's also sells milk shakes, ice-cream cones (including the sugar-free variety), nachos, corn dogs, and Nathan's brand hot dogs with homemade chili. The best seller, according to Acklin, is the Wedding Cake sno-cone. Though it's bright red -- go figure -- it has a rich, white-cake flavor. Folks also like the chocolate-dipped cherries, strawberries, and bananas.
1635 Union, 278-6416
I recently visited Wiles-Smith Drug Store on Union Avenue with a friend who spent several years in Europe. One of her first comments was, "Only in America." She explained that the idea of combining a pharmacy -- cures for what ails you -- with a restaurant is counterintuitive (to put it mildly) on the Continent. Then she had a Wiles-Smith milk shake.
For more than half a century, "the Union Avenue Country Club" has featured the finest soda fountain in Midtown, if not the Mid-South. And while the chicken-salad sandwiches carry their weight, it's the milk shakes -- chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, or cherry -- that have visitors lingering well beyond lunch hour.
Served in a steel tumbler, each shake is poured into a customer's glass . . . by the customer. And don't underestimate the experience of holding those tumblers on a July afternoon in Memphis. It's one thing to taste the chill of a classic shake, another to feel it. Just how much do you get in one of those tumblers? "Between 12 and 16 ounces, depending on the customer and how well he tips," chuckles Charlie Smith, the shop's owner and chief pharmacist.
It's easy to be distracted by the atmosphere at Wiles-Smith, some with a message. (If you"re fond of Bill and Hillary Clinton, be sure to carry your sense of humor to the cash register.) Time has forgotten the little shop at 1635 Union, but in all the right ways. Whether at a booth with your family or alone at the counter, you'll be sitting just as your grandmother once sat, had she a hankering for the right kind of shake.
For the brave at heart, consider ordering a Joe's Special. Named for longtime server Joe Oliver, these come with an extra scoop of ice cream, making an already thick concoction the kind of drink that makes a meal. And don"t even consider a straw.
Big John's Shake Shack
409 Military Road, Marion, AR, 870-739-3943
"Customers we haven't seen in a while drop by and ask to see Big John," says Loretta Tacker. Unfortunately, her husband passed away a little more than a year ago, but Tacker has kept the business -- a former Tastee Freeze they purchased 30 years ago -- going strong.
Despite its name, the Shake Shack serves lots more than milk shakes. In fact, it offers complete breakfasts, pizzas, plate lunches, dinners, and plenty of sandwiches. Plus there are nine flavors of pies that Tacker bakes herself every morning, including the Tang Pie, made from powdered Tang. "That one is my mother-in-law's recipe," she says. "It's a real cool, summery pie."
And then there are ice-cream cones, malts, sundaes, milk shakes, banana splits, Coke floats, and more. Diners can use the drive-thru or sip their butterfinger frostie in an interior that's a combination shrine to Elvis Presley and Coca-Cola. There's plenty of other memorabilia, too, devoted to, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, and Superman. Tacker displays one of Big John's most treasured keepsakes, a photograph autographed by Noel Neill, the actress who played Lois Lane in the old Superman TV series.
"He was just a Superman nut," she says, laughing. As proof, she flips through a photo album and shows a picture of John in a homemade Superman costume, standing in the parking lot with a sign promoting the Shake Shack's "Super Pizzas."
Several fast-food places have opened up along nearby I-55, but Tacker doesn't mind. "The police eat here, the firefighters eat here. Even the employees of the McDonald's down the road come here," she says, laughing.
"They call us a landmark, we've been around so long," she says. "There's sure a lot of memories here."
Mensi's Dairy Bar 162 Washington, Collierville, 853-2161
It's 4:30 on a hot afternoon. Parents and children with swimming gear and sun-hazed faces are pulling up to a nondescript building near the Collierville town square. One by one, thirsty folks get out, peer at the simple yet deliciously complex menu, and approach the walk-up counter, looking for an ice-cold remedy to shake the early summertime blues. Their answer is Mensi's Dairy Bar, a Collierville tradition that has been serving up floats, ice cream, and sno-cones to all who come searching for treats for more than 40 years.
Rachel Choe has only owned Mensi's for 10 of those years, and has never considered "updating" a place so steeped in history. The building's facade is worn, but it's a short distance from the ever-popular Town square, bringing its "60s-style architecture to an already historic neighborhood.
Mensi's claim-to-fame is not its delicious banana milk shake (made with real bananas) or the tutti-frutti sno-cones (oversized for your insatiable sweet tooth); it's the old-fashioned hamburgers, offered regular or jumbo-sized and with or without cheese. And if you're looking for value, then this is your place, offering a shake and sandwich for just over four dollars.
Mensi's is a great place for a cheap date (by that, we mean inexpensive, of course) or family outing. There is no inside dining, so prepare to eat your treats in the car with plenty of napkins. And don't try to visit Mensi's on Sundays -- like so many other small-town businesses, they're not open.
1472 National, 454-5882
Considering Sweden Kream predates the neighborhood that surrounds it, tracking the shop's history can be a challenge. Owner Terry Hardaway purchased the business six years ago with the expressed intent of restoring a facility built in 1940. (He laughs when asked about the origin of the name. "Your guess is as good as mine," he chuckles.) Hardaway's operation shares a building with an auto-repair shop and, with a dining room about the size of a train car, business is largely of the take-out variety. But take-out with a broad smile.
Burgers are popular at Sweden Kream, as are the hot wings. (If you want to make history at your next Super Bowl party, consider a 500-piece order of Hardaway's Lipsmack'n Hickory Hot Wings, all for $194.) But it's the hot fudge cake that is the feature attraction when the mercury rises. Two slices of moist chocolate cake, sandwiching a layer of thick soft-serve vanilla ice cream, all topped with hot fudge, whipped cream, and, of course, a cherry. It's the King Kong of ice-cream sandwiches, folks. One order will be plenty for two, depending on your skills (and your partner's) at dueling forks.
The most popular menu item for kids is the Hawaiian shaved ice. You can choose from among 24 flavors, including Tiger Blood (a combination of coconut and cherry) and Hawaiian Spike (similar to fruit punch). And with another nod to Scandinavia, try a Swedish Blitzer (vanilla ice cream mixed with the likes of Oreo cookies, Butterfinger, or M & M's).
Hardaway smiles when a visitor mentions his off-the-beaten-path location. He understands that a good reputation for service is the best direction he can offer. "You've got to be looking for us, to find us," he says. Sweden Kream's worth the search.