Bargain, Balanced, Ballin’: 15 Ice Cream Sandwiches For All Budgets

By Sophie Steiner, September 2, 2020

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Bargain, Balanced, Ballin’ is where we take a deep dive into a certain dish or food fad, one by one, creating a guide for where to sample the best (and sometimes worst) of them, all around the city and for any and every budget.

Last month marked the 121st birthday of the ice cream sandwich, America’s iconic summertime dessert that, throughout the past century, made a trip around the globe. This cooling treat can trace its origin back to the sweltering backstreets of New York City, where pushcart salesmen peddled them alongside other celebrated American street eats, like hot dogs and ‘churned butter’ milkshakes, enabling them to become a longstanding summertime tradition. 

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Since then, these frozen snacks have inspired countries like Singapore, Ireland, Australia, Israel, Uruguay, and even Iran to create their own styles. From the bánh mì kẹp kem in Vietnam, a street vendor treat with ice cream smooshed between two pieces of white bread, to Iran’s bastani-e nooni, a saffron and rosewater flavored ice cream that’s dipped in pistachios and served between two wafers, the definition of an ice cream sandwich has greatly expanded (along with our waistlines). 

When it comes to actual ice cream, gelato and soft serve, Shanghai’s frozen treat game is real strong. From one-off heavy hitters like Dal Cuore and Gracie’s to internationally recognized chains like Grom, there is no shortage of options for keeping cool in the summer. But what about upping the ante by placing said ice cream between two other saccharine confections for an all-around frozen bite of gluttony? We scoured Shanghai’s ice cream sandwich scene to bring you pretty much all the available options. 

Ballin’ (RMB40+)

Strictly Cookies (RMB40-45, or RMB50 for 4 mini cookie sliders)

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Whether you’ve lived in Shanghai for a year or 10, Strictly Cookies is the immediate choice that comes to mind for the ideal cookie, and for good reason too. Owner Lexie Comstock started the company as a passion project, and it has evolved over time into so much more than that. With epic cookie creations that only a culinary mad scientist could think up, it’s only fitting that Comstock would launch a version incorporating La Perla ice cream. 

The sandwiches come in funky flavor combos, like our favorite, the Salted Butterscotch, made of creamy vanilla ice cream smooshed between two superbly chewy cookies, and then rolled in butterscotch crunchies. Or the more recent collaboration with Spread the Bagel consisting of chocolate brownie cookies encircling salted caramel ice cream flecked with everything bagel seasoning. 

Although the ratio of cookie to ice cream skews more towards cookie (rightfully so when you make the best cookies in Shanghai), out of all of the ice cream sandwiches we tried, this is the one calling our name for a repeat purchase. Every flavor is available in the Strictly Cookies brick-and-mortar store or for delivery through their WeChat store. A few classic flavors are also available at the Mikkeller Tasting Room. 

Food Theory (RMB45)

Image by provided by Food Theory 

If you’ve been to Hong Kong’s Little Bao, this fried mantou ice cream sandwich may seem peculiarly familiar. Hong Kong native and Food Theory co-owner Clara Ma said she drew on Little Bao as inspiration for her ice cream sandwich. 

Originally launched as a dessert option for pop up markets around town like Commune Market, she has now added it to the daily dessert menu after confirming a more reliable ice cream source. The sandwich is currently avaialble with Haagen Daz strawberry ice cream drizzled with homemade strawberry jam or Haagen Daz green tea ice cream topped with sweet red bean jam.

Highline (RMB78)

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Highline offers the utmost elevated version of this sweet treat, a ‘deconstructed ice cream sandwich’ if you will, which is just a fancy way of saying, ‘make it yourself, b*tch.’ The vanilla ice cream with oat crumble is nothing to write home about. That said, after trying those warm, gooey sea salt double dark chocolate chunk cookies, we would do just about anything for them (even if it means assembling them into a haphazard melty mess). We guarantee you will leave Highline equal parts sticky and satisfied. 

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Goodfellas’ Tartufo Bianco (RMB80) 

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Clocking in as the most expensive ‘ice cream sandwich’ on our list, this Italian dessert barely sneaks its way into the ice cream sandwich category. For the Goodfellas’ take on a tartufo, vanilla ice cream is mixed with macadamia nut slivers and coated in a hard shell of white satin chocolate and almond ‘cookies’ and placed atop a glistening serving of raspberry puree and vanilla cream. Is it tasty? Most definitely. Does it qualify as an ice cream sandwich? Debatable, but we’re willing to push the definition far enough to include this macadamia-filled mouthful on our list. 

Balanced (RMB20-39)

Mikaku (RMB28)

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This Japanese café is internet famous for their monster-size stack of fluffy tiramisu pancakes. The space is tiny, and it’s common to wait up to an hour for dessert, but it’s always worth it. Mikaku’s ice cream sandwich is quite similar to RAC II’s (see below) in that the outside layer is a bread bun rather than a cookie or wafer. The toasted bun is key, sprinkled with powdered sugar…since who doesn’t want more sugar when eating an already sweet ice cream sandwich? Choose your flavor of ice cream (vanilla, burnt caramel, fig or osmanthus fermented rice) and wash it down with any of the cutesy coffee drinks on offer. We recommend the cinnamon latte. 

Heritage by Madison (RMB58 for two)

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When it comes to Heritage by Madison and Austin Hu’s take on the perfect ice cream sandwich, it’s all about juxtaposing textures. Focusing on shatteringly crisp, extra thin chocolate chip cookies contrasted against Shanghai favorite Gracie’s vanilla ice cream, this sweet sando is classic crunchy comfort. The ice cream itself is definitely the star here, with the biggest serving size available out of any other contender. 

RAC II (RMB 58 for two)

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The OG ice cream sandwich is a block of vanilla ice cream stuffed between two rectangular chocolate wafers. However, over time, the definition has greatly expanded to any kind of frozen sweet nestled between a combination of biscuits, wafers, cookies and, at RAC II, now even toasted bread buns! Choose between flavors like salted caramel, rhum raisin, vanilla or yogurt and receive two of the richest, creamiest homemade scoops of ice cream placed atop a perfectly toasted brioche bun. The crisp inner edge of the bun adds the necessary texture contrast, bringing to mind the naughtiest breakfast toast with cold ice cream ‘butter’ ever imagined. 

Creamistry (RMB35)

Image provided by Creamistry

This ice cream shop’s flagship store is conveniently located opposite Tianzifang, making it no surprise that lines snake out the door on any given day. We stopped in twice to Creamistry trying to grab one of their famous cereal stacked ice cream sandwiches, but unfortunately both times they were sold out. With cereal ‘’cookie’ flavors made from knock-off Western cereals like Froot Loops, Cheerios, Fruity Pebbles, and Chocolate O’s, and a wide range of over 10 ice cream flavors to choose from, you could mix and match to the nth degree with all the permutations available. Count your lucky stars if you can snag one before they sell out.

Bargain (RMB1-19)

Siaphya Wafer Milk Ice Cream (RMB6)

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The Siaphya ice cream brand is owned by Baidade, a beverage company hailing from North-eastern China. According to their website, the brand is supposed to evoke imagery of “status and glory of the Russian aristocrats, noble blood and tradition.” In reality, this flavorless, tasteless, texture-less wafer surrounding a substance barely passable as ice cream (it tastes like overly sweet butter, leaving an unappealing slick feeling on your tongue) is the only ice cream sandwich we tossed in the garbage instead of finishing. That’s right, it went the way of the Romanovs.

Dongbei Daban’s Ice Cream Sandwich (RMB6)

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Dongbei Daban is one of China’s most widely distributed ice cream bar brands, most easily recognizable for their modest, retro packaging, designed to evoke memories of a simpler time for the PRC. The original Dongbei Daban ice cream bar is just a thick rectangular slab of milk flavored ice cream. Simple, yet delicious, and sold for around RMB3. For an extra couple yuan, they throw on two graham flavored cookies that soften like shortbread and taste exactly how you would expect a store bought ice cream sandwich to taste. High in the bang for your buck category. 

Oreo Ice Cream Sandwich (RMB6.8)

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Childhood nostalgia in a plastic wrapper is the best way to sum up this Oreo ice cream sandwich – cookies and cream ice cream cushioned between two squishy cocoa circles. Is the ice cream a bit icy compared to some of our Ballin’ options? Yes. Is the Oreo a bit soft resulting in no texture contrast? Yes. Would we repeat purchase it? Again and again. 

Aldi (RMB49 for a box of four)

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You’ve done it again Aldi! After bringing us our favorite Western snacks at beyond reasonable prices, it shouldn’t have been such a big surprise that the ice cream sandwiches equally nail it. Like those of our childhoods, we assumed all store-bought ice cream sandwiches involved semi-flavorless wafers surrounding overly sugary ice cream – more nostalgically good than proper, gourmet good – but we were oh-so wrong. Available in a variety of classic flavors, like mint, strawberry, vanilla and chocolate fudge, the ice cream is satisfyingly luscious, nestled between two chocolate nib studded cookies that taste like they were freshly baked by the most loving of grandmas. 

Ze Tian (RMB15-16)

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We’ve seen cookies, wafers and bread buns as ice cream sandwich outer layers. Now Ze Tian on Fumin Lu throw their hat in the game with pancakes. Similar to the Japanese Dorayaki, these sweet filled pancakes come with a variety of fillings – matcha cream, cheese, oreo, mocha, oolong peach and rosy lychee. Although the filling is cold, it’s more like cream than ice cream, but the welcome addition of sweet red bean had us crushing this wanghong dessert, frozen or not. 

White Castle (RMB18)

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Fast food and ice cream have gone together since the golden arches spread its lofty legs across the globe. However, we found out the hard way that velvety soft serve in a cone and overly icy, sickly-sweet blobs of ice cream between 2 doughy buns are vastly different. This one from White Castle is more about the novelty and less about the deliciousness. 

Plain and simple, the real downfall is the ice cream. Choose between strawberry or pineapple, both of which taste more like the fake candy version rather than the actual fruits. In fact, the Hong Kong-style pineapple bun surrounding the ice cream is passable, but definitely too thick and doughy to be paired with even the best of ice cream. Props, though, for including fresh mint and real blueberries on an RMB18 dessert, leaving us slightly worried about what ingredients are in the RMB10 burger they sell. 

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[Cover Image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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