Albany chef brings retro ice cream cart to his hometown

Randy’s Best Ice Cream offers five rotating flavors. Find the cart on Solano Avenue, Friday through Sunday, starting April 23.

Randy's Best Ice Cream is an ice cream cart business started by Albany-based chef Brandon Nguyen.
Albany-based chef Brandon Nguyen started Randy’s Best Ice Cream after getting laid off from his restaurant job during the pandemic. Credit: Paulina Barrack

On April 23, Randy’s Best Ice Cream, a new small batch ice cream cart offering five rotating flavors, will set up shop at 1115 Solano Ave., in front of the Albany Twin theater.

Randy’s comes from Albany resident Brandon Nguyen, who until last year had been working as a savory chef at San Francisco restaurants like State Bird Provisions, The Progress and, most recently, Verjus. In May 2020, when the shelter-in-place ordinance was in full swing, Nguyen lost his restaurant job. He had casually thought about building an ice cream business in the past, and the more he reflected on it, the more he realized it could be the career he had been hoping for.

“Once I got laid off, I realized I had to change career paths. I began to think a lot about my future and what it looked like in the food industry, an industry that I really love,” Nguyen said. “I want to have kids, and I want to be able to go to their dance recitals. If I opened a restaurant, I just wouldn’t be able to do that. I’ve worked in enough successful restaurants to learn that I can’t really have both.”

Albany-based chef Brandon Nguyen wears an old-fashioned soda jerk hat and holds a carton of Randy's Best Ice Cream.
Brandon Nguyen, known as “Randy” to his friends and family, wanted to start his business in Albany, his hometown. Credit: Paulina Barrack

In August, Nguyen began to research and build a financial plan for his ice cream company. Between a brick-and-mortar, an ice cream truck or an ice cream cart, Nguyen decided to start with a cart due to the costs associated with opening a physical location or maintaining a truck. The name of his business refers to the nickname his friends and family call him: Randall, or Randy for short. Having grown up in Albany, Nguyen always had his sights on bringing the business to his hometown and moved back to Albany from San Francisco in November. 

“I picked Albany because I feel a sense of community there. I know a lot of the business owners and a lot of the families of the people I went to high school with.” — Brandon Nguyen

“I picked Albany because I feel a sense of community there. I know a lot of the business owners and a lot of the families of the people I went to high school with,” said Nguyen. “This isn’t a business built on the alumni of Albany High, but instead one built on community.”

As for the ice cream, Nguyen uses organic, local milk from Clover and heavy cream from Producers Dairy. Instead of scooping flavors out of his cart, he’ll offer them in pre-packaged, single-size cartons. His menu is inspired by classic flavors, as well as his culinary experimentations from his days as a line cook. To Nguyen, classic flavors are both “archetypes that Americans have never really diverged from: coffee, vanilla, chocolate, etc., and then there are the ones that have become new classics from immigrants: green tea, and black sesame are good examples of this.”

Cartons of Randy's Best Ice Cream.
The Randy’s Best Ice Cream cart features five flavors at a time, each pre-packaged in branded single-size cartons. Credit: Paulina Barrack

After landing on a base flavor, Nguyen thinks of add-ins to highlight and expand upon the flavor profile, from flecks of sea salt to housemade cookies, or even layering in a second, complementary ice cream flavor. For Nguyen, the most important aspect of this process is using seasonal ingredients and striking the perfect balance of texture, sweetness, acidity, richness and aroma.

“I ask myself if the ice cream tastes good after one, five, 10 or 20 spoonfuls,” remarked Nguyen. “Eating ice cream is a pretty indulgent experience. I don’t want to tap someone out after a scoop for whatever reason: sweetness, richness, aroma overload, etc. I want someone to wish they had more after they finish. That’s my goal.”

Nguyen reckons that his Popcorn Salted Caramel ice cream will become one of his staple flavors. For it, Nguyen tosses freshly popped popcorn with clarified butter before steeping the popcorn in the ice cream base. After churning, the ice cream is layered with a delicately salted housemade caramel. The result is a perfect example of Nguyen’s talent for updating a classic flavor without forgetting the nostalgia: The taste is reminiscent of movie theatre popcorn upon first bite, with a pleasant aftertaste of caramelized sugar and sweet cream.

An above shot of an open container of Randy's Best Ice Cream Popcorn Salted Caramel flavor.
For his Popcorn Salted Caramel flavor, Brandon Nguyen mixes in freshly popped popcorn flavored with clarified butter and salted housemade caramel. Credit: Paulina Barrack

In addition to Popcorn Salted Caramel, the opening day menu will include Brownie Batter, Coffee Cookie, Passion Guava Milk and Meyer Lemon Lavender. Nguyen prefers to use local ingredients whenever possible: His Brownie Batter flavor is made with Berkeley-based TCHO chocolate, his Coffee Cookie with Emeryville’s Counter Culture Coffee, and he sources his lemons for the Meyer Lemon Lavender flavor from his neighbor’s backyard. Depending on what fruit is in season, he plans to rotate at least a couple of the flavors every few weeks, but will keep any fan favorites on the menu.

Nguyen had his eye on Solano Avenue with community in mind, and looks forward to striking up conversations with passersby while offering up his ice cream. When asked about potentially opening a scoop shop, his thoughts turn back to the community: 

“If I have enough demand, I’d open a brick-and-mortar. I’d open a small little ice cream parlor/dessert cafe. I love the idea of owning an ice cream shop that stayed in my little hometown forever, but popular enough that people from all over the Bay and even the country want to come have some ice cream.”

Randy’s Best Ice Cream will be at 1115 Solano Ave. in Albany starting on Friday, April 23, from noon to 8 p.m. Cart hours will be weekly from noon to 8 p.m. (or until sold out), Friday to Sunday. For an updated list of flavors, please visit randysbesticecream.com or follow Randy’s Best Ice Cream on Instagram.