At a shopping center like this, we’d expect an ice cream parlor. In a long strip of businesses set back from the street, we spot a pharmacy, a photo lab and a dry cleaner, a mobile phone store, two eyecare shops and a cinema (“returning soon,” proclaims the marquee; “stay safe”).
And our eyes take in lots of food, all of it kosher, in this predominantly Jewish area of Kew Gardens Hills: a dairy restaurant and sushi bar, a bagel-and-appetizing shop, a butcher, a Chinese restaurant, a schnitzel specialist, a pizzeria that also fries up falafel.
If we hadn’t visited before, however, we’d never imagine that this particular parlor has a repertoire of more than 10,000 flavors. (Not all at once, of course.) But once inside Max & Mina’s Ice Cream, when surrounded by what Bruce Becker calls “my collections” – a wildly diverse, visually overwhelming display of cereal boxes, bumper stickers, decals, record albums, pages clipped from old magazines, and more, covering the walls, the ceiling and most other flat surfaces – that number soon seems within reach.
Customers “come in here for an escape,” adds Mark Becker; during the pandemic that swept into Queens this year, they have ample reason. The ice cream and the ambience each do their part.
Bruce and Mark, Orthodox Jewish brothers who grew up in Nassau County, in the suburbs east of Queens, opened Max & Mina’s (Minn-ahs) in 1997. Their grandfather Max Sockloff was a chemist who made a living by developing consumer products such as toothpaste. For his own pleasure, and to delight his wife, Mina, and his extended family, including Bruce and Mark, he developed recipes for ice cream, too. After Max’s death, Bruce uncovered his ice cream journal, which eventually helped inspire the shop.
We’ve never seen Max’s recipe journal, but surely the Becker brothers have surpassed their grandfather in sheer variety of flavors. Bruce continually weighs the expectations of returning customers, who often request favorite flavors from past visits, against his own desire for “keeping things moving” by creating new ones. In a shop that can offer only 30-some flavors on any given day, he asks, “where is that balance?”
We’ve never seen Max’s recipe journal, but surely the Becker brothers have surpassed their grandfather in sheer variety of flavors.
“I’m always stopping off at farmstands,” Bruce continues. In recent days he’d been hoping to make corn ice cream, but the crop on hand was disappointing; he shows us a partially eaten ear that didn’t make the grade. But when he encountered an “amazing” batch of peaches with “just the right amount of tartness,” he asked the farmer, “give me all you got!”
Peach cheesecake ice cream, he notes, is in the current lineup. Our own farmstand favorite is blackberry; in the past we’ve also enjoyed cardamom pistachio, eggnog, and salty peanut butter. Max & Mina’s gained wide attention in its early years, however, for flavors that stepped beyond the bounds of what was then considered suitable for ice cream. Lox is the most infamous; pickle and horseradish are recurring favorites; we’ve also caught word of cholent, chocolate rugelach, and pizza. We’ve never managed to try any of these – the most recent batch of pickle came and went only weeks before our visit.
The current favorite, according to Bruce, is Captain Crunch cookies ‘n’ cream, which features the namesake breakfast cereal and was, on the day we stopped in, one of five cereal flavors on hand. That’s fitting enough, considering how much wall space is devoted to cereal-box artwork, not only from the colorful box fronts but also from the backs and sides. As children, observes Mark, the stories and games on the backs and sides of the boxes entertained us, briefly, during breakfast – just as a visit to Max & Mina’s can “take you out of your reality for five minutes.”
Max & Mina’s was closed for a short while at the onset of the pandemic in New York. And its wholesale business has suffered, although the shop’s situation is far better, says Bruce, than the “heartbreaking” state of affairs for many restaurants in “the city.” (To someone speaking from Queens, especially someone like Bruce who grew up in the suburbs, “the city” means Manhattan.)
Retail business is “great,” Bruce adds, thanks not only to continued sales but also because “I get to talk to people” at the shop, and “I get to listen.” There’s been “a lot to listen to in the past few months,” he reflects. Customers are taking home more ice cream that ever, Bruce continues, in pints, in quarts and even in tubs filled with bespoke batches – provided that those special orders are placed well in advance. (He suggests several weeks, at a minimum).
Max & Mina’s is fortunate, in fact, that it hasn’t needed to upend its business model to get by. The shop sells hard ice cream only; there’s no soft serve, no sorbet. No sprinkles, either. Business is cash only. In what can be a surprise to customers from outside the neighborhood, Max & Mina’s is closed on Saturdays – even on sunny summer afternoons – just like all the other kosher businesses along the strip. The shop does open briefly, after the Sabbath, late each Saturday evening.
We can work with that. After the requisite five or six samples – maybe Rice Krispies marshmallow won’t be on hand next time – we settle on two scoops, Fruity Pebbles atop Captain Crunch. Who says we can’t have breakfast cereal after lunch or dinner?
- February 26, 2019 Homestead Gourmet Shop
Homestead Gourmet Shop in Kew Gardens, with its quaint, peeling sign and cheery […] Posted in Queens
- June 25, 2019 Eddie’s Sweet Shop
When a streetcar ran down Queens’ Metropolitan Avenue in the first half of the 20th […] Posted in Queens
- June 17, 2019 La Gran Via Bakery
Saturday, late afternoon, Jackson Heights. In the shadows of the 7, the elevated train […] Posted in Queens