Despite its name, the egg cream does not contain egg or, for the most part, cream. Instead, this New York-born fountain beverage mixes Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup with a little bit of milk and a big squirt of high pressure seltzer water, to create a foamy, sweet concoction unlike anything you've ever tasted. Thin and not so creamy, it differs enormously from Yoohoo or other chocolate sodas.
Even in New York, a good fountain egg cream is hard to find these days, and a couple of companies have taken it upon themselves to formulate a bottled version, so that the age old recipe can be appreciated well into the future. I decided to taste the available bottled egg creams, and stack them up against the real thing, to see how well they capture the flavor.
The Real McCoy:
RAY'S CANDY SHOP
(Avenue A at 7th)
You wouldn't know this joint was called Ray's unless you happened to ask. The canopy must have been paid for by a local newspaper, because it reads, "New York Newsday - Truth, Justice and the Comics." The only clue to the existence of the fountain inside are a few hand-lettered signs listing the various flavors of egg creams. The store exists primarily as a very skinny newsstand, with very little candy on display. There is barely room to squeeze past the people buying cigarettes, so there is certainly no place for seats, and lacks that old-time fountain feel. I tasted a chocolate and a mango. The chocolate, served in a dixie cup by a young hipster, tasted pretty uninspired. The minimal foam sat atop a fairly gooey mixture, and most of the chocolate remained at the bottom until I mixed it around, spilling some on the sidewalk. The mango syrup mixed better, and consequently tasted better, although a mango egg cream seemed entirely inauthentic. To be fair, I had heard that an old man mixed up a mean egg cream at this joint, but he was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he had not yet imparted the secret wisdom to his younger employees. All told, the drinks weren't bad, and at only 60 cents, who am I to complain?
(2nd Avenue at 8th)
According to a knowledgeable egg cream connoisseur, this stretch of 2nd Avenue should have been a veritable mecca for those seeking fountain enlightenment. He told me of at least two spots, and said many more existed. Unfortunately, Blocks Candy on 6th has been converted to a dress shop (Although they didn't bother to change the sign on the canopy, which still says "Candy Store.") A few blocks up however, Gem Spa still exists, and proudly announces its egg creams with a great big neon sign. Again, this place primarily serves as a newspaper and magazine shop, with no counter to sit and relax with a fountain treat. But the proprietor really takes his drinks seriously. Although he gave me my egg cream in a paper cup, I saw a few glasses sitting around, so I suppose he would not kill me if I asked for one to stay. He took great care in creating just the right mixture, squirting the seltzer in three different stages and mixing with a long spoon in between each squirt. He must have done something right, because when I handed him my $1.95, he gave me back a cup of perfectly fused chocolate, freezing cold milk and seltzer, topped off with a great big heap of foam. I started to see what sent old-timers waxing nostalgic about this drink.
ARIZONA LITE CHOCOLATE FUDGE FLOAT
(Probably available pretty widely, since Arizona is a big brand, but what do I know?)
The bottle itself makes this drink a worthwhile purchase. It is a goddamn work of art. At 20 oz., though, you better hope this tastes okay after it goes flat, because chocolate soda does not lend itself well to chugging. The bottle says explicitly that one had better not shake, but the temptation overwhelmed me when I saw the big glob of chocolate resting on the bottom. I swirled it lightly, and thankfully, it did not blow up in my face when I unscrewed the cap. The soda is surprisingly refreshing for a beverage which contains milk and chocolate. It remains consistently thin throughout, and except for the slight chemically taste of aspartame (it is a "lite" soda after all), really does capture the taste of an authentic egg cream - not surprising since it proudly proclaims "Made with the original U-Bet syrup." Unfortunately, it lacks the foamy freshness of a just-mixed fountain soda. Clearly this drink works better as a dessert or snack than it would as an accompaniment to a steak dinner.
JEFF'S CHOCOLATE SODA
(Available in some big cities nationwide, but don't count on finding it everywhere)
Jeff makes the bold claim that his soda is "Amazing," and tells you to "Get Creamed!" The presence of stabilizers makes for a much better mix than the Arizona brand, so I did not have to worry about the mound of goo at the bottom of the bottle. Jeff's soda is much creamier and thicker than any of the other egg creams I tasted. The chocolate tastes slightly more bitter than the others, too. Apparently, the formula is not set in stone, and different thicknesses can be had, although there is no way to know what you're going to get, unless you are privy to the particular batch numbers. I tried two, and both were thicker than I would have liked. Jeff's lacked the refreshing qualities of the others, and tasted more like chocolate milk with soda added, rather than soda with a little chocolate added. Again, the best part of the egg cream, the foam, can not be achieved in a bottle, but taking into consideration the lack of real fountains left in the world, the bottled kind may be the closest most people get to the real thing.
B.I.G. BROOKLYN EGG CREAM
(Available almost nowhere, if my experience is any indication)
I scoured the city in search of the elusive B.I.G. Brooklyn Egg Cream. My travels took me from a few stores around where I work to a few stores around where I live, and still no dice. For the sake of accuracy, though, I felt it important to try every bottled egg cream around, and delved even further. A few minutes of searching on the internet led me to a Long Island phone number for the B.I.G. company. I called at night, expecting to leave a message and hope somebody would call me back. Instead, a New-York-Accented man answered. I explained my interest in finding one of his company's egg creams, and he asked what others I had tasted. I told him about Arizona and Jeff's, to which he replied, "Well, I'm Jeff." Unbelievable! Here I was speaking to the original egg cream guru himself. He told me that he used to drink egg creams all the time, and when the fountains started disappearing, he decided to do something about it and formulate a bottled version to share with the unfortunates born after the golden age of soda. He further explained that B.I.G. Brooklyn Egg Cream is the exact same as Jeff's, only "30% larger." Incredulous, I asked if the two really matched exactly. Slowly, he explained, "Yep, only one's 30% larger." What he did not mention is that B.I.G. also differs from Jeff's in that hardly anybody sells the stuff.
After my exhaustive research, I came to the conclusion that one should not break one's neck in search of a great egg cream. While pretty tasty and fun to drink, if they were as good as some folks would have you believe, the soda fountain would be flourishing even today.