Visiting the frosties of the Lost Sierra

by Emily Guerin

The Polka Dot squats at the edge of town, a vintage burger and soft-serve joint with a bright blue Chateau-style roof and a large primary-colored sign that proclaims: FROSTIES. Standing beneath the restaurant's massively precarious and rusty swamp cooler, you can choose between fried pickles and Texas Toothpicks (battered, deep-fried jalapenos and onions), a dipped cone or a fresh strawberry shake. Just after dinnertime on a warm August night, four local teenage girls in black shirts and tight jeans lean over the counter, bantering with a friend who works here. In the parking lot, customers in cowboy boots idle in huge trucks, slowly licking swirls of soft-serve.

This is Quincy, a town of 1,700 located 150 miles northeast of Sacramento, in the heart of the Lost Sierra, a part of California made famous by the gold-seeking '49ers. The steep forested hillsides plunge into clear creeks that still sparkle with flecks of gold. Local geological consultants stake and sell placer claims, and shops carry sieves and pans for people working the streams. But the Gold Rush isn't the only part of the past that lingers here: Deep in the Lost Sierra, the frosty still thrives.

The word "frosty" has two connotations: either the swirl of vanilla or chocolate soft-serve on a cone, or – my main interest – the classic establishments that dish it out. Typically, the restaurants date back to the 1960s and sell made-to-order fast food – corndogs, burgers and a lot of finger foods – for prices that have changed little over time.

Elsewhere, they're known by different names – shake shacks, dairy freezes, drive-ins – but in the Lost Sierra they are almost always called frosties. Last August my friend, Katie, and I hit nine of them on a three-day road trip. Why? For the whole retro experience, the distinctive culture, and something we realized as we roamed: The uncanny way that frosties mirror their clientele and their towns.

The dessert originated in the 1930s, when either the founders of Dairy Queen or (there is some debate) Carvel Ice Cream, which billed itself as "the nation's first retail ice cream franchise," discovered that customers loved ice cream served at a slightly warmer temperature than normal, right out of the machine. But it was Dave Thomas, Wendy's founder, who capitalized on the name, putting the 35-cent category-bending treat (was it a beverage, or a dessert?) on the original 1969 Wendy's menu. Today, frosties remain one of the chain's most popular items.

Wendy's frosties are served in a cup with a spoon, but the frosties of the Lost Sierra proudly retain the original form, spiraling skyward from cones, either naked or dipped in liquid chocolate that forms a thin shell. They yield easily to the teeth and dissolve swiftly on the tongue. Frosties are low-fat and airy, with a variety of unpalatable-sounding additives that keep them from melting too fast, growing ice crystals or getting chunky.

Frosties are everywhere in the Lost Sierra. We began our tour at the Pine Shack Frosty in Chester, Calif., a town of barely 2,000 that's a gateway to Lassen Volcanic National Park. The restaurant's menu was hand-lettered by a one-legged old man named Bubba, who has also painted most of the signs in town, lending the entire place a pre-digital feel. Your meal is on the house if Mount Lassen erupts while you order.

In Chilcoot, a ranching town of 450 near the Nevada border, Tim Kanavel, who was born on a ranch, and his wife, Carolyn, have run the Chilcoot Frosty for 15 years. Their faded hand-painted sign features a smiling cowboy pointing at a carton of fries. We stopped by one hot and hazy morning, under drifting smoke from a Yosemite wildfire. I yearned for something cool and creamy, so we diverged from our policy of eschewing soft-serve before noon. We split a fresh blueberry shake – and it hit the spot.

Farther south, the sign at the Sno-Flake Drive-In in touristy South Lake Tahoe is a laser-printed replica of the original, and there are three kinds of "sortaburgers" – veggie, salmon and turkey – to cater to the non-beef eaters that tend to migrate to resort towns.

Nearly all of the frosties we visited have been around since the early 1960s, and black-and-white photos on their walls show clean-cut couples licking soft serve in classic cars, polished chrome and fins shining. But other than their vintage, what distinguishes frosties from regular ice cream shops? Like pornography, frosties are easier to recognize than to define. In a way, you can tell a frosty by what it's not. Thus, Katie and I concluded that Treats, a boutique ice cream shop in bourgie Nevada City, in the Lost Sierra foothills, does not qualify: A single scoop of Treat's hard, hand-scooped ice cream cost $3.25 (flavors included lemon custard, green tea and bittersweet chocolate), and shining glass domes covered plates of gluten-free brownies. I looked skeptically at Katie, who was licking a scoop of (admittedly) very delicious mint chip. "We gotta get out of here," she said. "We're out of the frosty belt."

Two and a half hours later, we were back in the mountains, in Portola, another small town, eating kraut dogs, onion rings and tater tots at a picnic table outside the Portola Frosty. Its giant, peeling wooden sign featured a 5-foot-tall cone, a burger that towered over my head and, in red letters, the word FROSTY. The portions were as large as the customers' waistlines, and the greasy food hit our stomachs hard. "Are we going to get fat?" I wondered as we drove off looking for a place to camp. "We might need to eat salads for a week and a half after this," Katie said.

It was the experience of eating, rather than the food, that inspired us to become frosties tourists. There's something about entering a world where generations of people have sat outside underneath the same pine trees for at least 50 years, eating the same kind of burgers and shakes. The ambiance is what matters– the hand-lettered signs, warped wooden picnic tables and rotating cast of teenage girls behind the window. Even if the menu evolves to attract new customers – many frosties now serve dairy-and-gluten-free soft-serve, brown rice and vegetable stir-fry or veggie burgers – the emotional experience of eating remains the same.

I marveled how nearly every small town we visited could support a frosty. In the Sierra Valley, we hit four of them in 40 miles. Two were for sale, though, and only one, Rhonda's Lil' Frosty in Loyalton, appeared very busy. But regardless of how dietary trends and fears of obesity affect the business, I suspect nostalgia will keep customers coming back. It's hard to resist the menu at Bud's Jolly Kone in Red Bluff: a 50-cent hamburger with any purchase, plus a receipt printed with the words "All Good Things Come From The Father Above." Naturally, that includes frosties.

This story is part of an April 2014 special issue of the HCN magazine devoted to travel in the West. Emily Guerin is an HCN correspondent and radio producer based in Paonia, Colo.

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