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Ice age

Frozen yogurt came out of the West in two waves: tastes like yogurt and tastes like ice cream. Which cool ride is better?

By Steve Miller
Globe Correspondent / April 27, 2011

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It came from Los Angeles with trend-friendly nutritional value and a tongue-enticing tart taste. Frozen yogurt — froyo to its fans — is an intriguing treat, really. It’s a tangy but sweet combination of milk, sugar, and the active live cultures (known as probiotics) that make yogurt, well, yogurt. With barely a spoonful of warning, this frozen phenomenon has permeated the Boston area.

Initially, customers saw froyo as a painless, guiltless way to wean themselves off a certain hand-dipped frozen treat. Several years of experience and one episode of “Seinfeld’’ later, we now know that although frozen yogurt is healthy compared with ice cream, it is not manna from health food heaven (facing page). There are two schools of frozen yogurt. One is the tastes-like-yogurt variety, with its instantly identifiable pucker and soft texture, and the other is the tastes-like-ice-cream kind, which comes both soft and firm, and retains the low-fat appeal without the tart. In this city, you can witness the warring froyo stores drawing down-the-block lines of eager foodies craving this chilly confection. There seems to be a berry-this or a yo-that staking claim to a new corner every month.

Many aficionados are already acquainted with the well-established tastes-like-ice-cream variety, thanks to local creameries such as J.P. Licks and Richardson’s. It’s the tastes-like-yogurt mix that has seen a recent surge in popularity. In light of froyo’s newfound ubiquity, we set out with the not-so-scientific task of tasting and analyzing yogurt from the various froyo establishments. That involved a group of four swirling our way through 11 spots. We tasted everyone’s plainest offering, then let ourselves get carried away with such temptations as Nutella, mango, coconut, and red velvet (like the cake).

To say we sampled all the frozen yogurt in town would be inaccurate. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes that sell perfectly delightful froyo (the South End’s Amsterdam Cafe comes to mind). We focused on froyo boutiques, and stopped by a few of the more established shops that deal in tastes-like-ice-cream yogurt.

Steve Miller can be reached at smiller@globe.com.

Red Mango Yogurt and Smoothies
An LA startup-turned-national chain, Red Mango plays foil to the minimalism of Pinkberry, adapting its froyo for use in more elaborate products such as fruit- and tea-infused yogurt smoothies, and Ghirardelli-laced hot chocolate chillers. The froyo lineup features a tart original, bold pomegranate, rich Madagascar vanilla, and the current featured flavor, raspberry cheesecake. A spoonful of Red Mango froyo bears the texture of an icy batch of soft serve — a bit granular, and very, very cold. A potentially controversial vibe, but perfect if you’re looking for yogurt taste with an ice-creamy feel.

Red Mango’s tropical and mixed berry parfaits, made with a hearty mix of fresh fruit, original froyo, and organic flaxseed granola, are standouts, equal parts crunch and cool. If the summer sun is just too scorching, or the couch too comfy, delivery within 5-10 miles is available. $3.75 for a medium original, $4.25 for flavored; 334 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, 857-366-4116; 15 Shipyard Drive, Hingham, 781-741-8900 (self-serve only); 1245 Worcester St., Suite 2042, Natick, 508-653-2509, www.redmangousa.com.

Pinkberry
Pinkberry unarguably leads the froyo vanguard. We can also credit the company with originating the linguistic practice of slapping “berry’’ onto anything remotely related to frozen yogurt. Since its LA inception in 2005, more than 110 locations have enhanced the summer sidewalk scene with Pinkberry’s standard-setting tart and fresh fruit toppings. With four local shops, Pinkberry seems to be a good fit in Massachusetts.

This froyo takes it easy in the flavor department, choosing to stick with traditional varieties: The original plain is a constant alongside a rotating set of seasonal flavors (currently chocolate, pomegranate, mango, lychee, coconut). The inherent tartness, the pucker that draws fans, tends to overpower any added accents. Pomegranate has just a pinch of noticeable flavor; same for coconut and mango. A selection of smoothies, parfaits, and fruit bowls rounds out the menu.

A big plus is the chain’s pro-consumer topping strategy. Where some places charge per topping, the benevolent folks here allow customers to add as many as can fit in the bowl. A double-edged sword, some might say. For a bounty of blueberries and pineapple may make for a cool, healthy snack, but the same does not go for a cup that runneth over with brownie chunks and Cap’n Crunch. $3.75 for a medium original, $4.75 for flavored; 288 Newbury St., Boston, 617-424-5300; 800 Boylston St., Boston, 617-236-2294; 1380 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-547-0537; 94 Derby St., Hingham, 781-740-4788; www.pinkberry.com.

Rancatore's Ice Cream and Yogurt
The locals lovingly call it Ranc’s. We glowingly call it the best hard-scoop, hand-dipped, tastes-like-ice-cream yogurt we tasted. Not only is the blend delicious, it fares well in the nutrition department, too, sitting at an enviable 98 percent fat-free. Though lacking in tart, the Ranc’s recipe does, in fact, include three active cultures. Owner Joe Rancatore, who has shops in Belmont and Lexington, says he is cautious about shifting toward tart. Rather, he plans to sit back and watch the froyo wave roll and, perhaps, crash. “I wonder, is this another TCBY trend?’’ he said. “Is Red Mango going to be a quote, un-quote ‘player’ in a few years?’’

Trends be damned, Rancatore’s has great yogurt. A dish of pineapple, with it’s chewy, just slightly frozen fruit chunks makes a light, textured treat. Every now and then, the mixers at Ranc’s get a little creative, yielding flavors such as ginger or grapenut raisin. And the numbers appear to agree with our taste buds: Rancatore estimates that yogurt accounts for 30 percent of sales. $5.25 for a medium; 36 Leonard St., Belmont, 617-489-5090; 1752 Massachusetts Ave., Lexington, 781-862-5090, www.rancs.com.

Truly Yogurt
This quaint Wellesley creamery lacks yogurt in the technical sense, but the rich, soft-serve, nonfat “yogurt’’ is not to be missed. It’s a healthy alternative to ice cream and has the lean but flavorful swirl of soft-serve froyo. Flavors run the gamut from traditional vanilla to coconut cream pie or candy cane for those looking to branch out. Flavors change daily, making repeat trips a must. $3.50 for a medium; 35 Grove St., Wellesley, 781-239-1356, www.trulyyogurt.com.

boYO
This place sits just behind Beacon Hill in Charles River Plaza and it’s hard to miss. Other yogurt stores have come to embrace the cheery pastel color scheme befitting their sunny product, but boYO is bright beyond all others. The radiant technicolor interior puts a smile on your face before the food gets the chance to (and the free Wi-Fi is cheery, too).

Something else that impressed us at boYO: They combine froyo, a most delicious thing indeed, with other delicious things. Hence such wonders as yogurt-topped cookies, yogurt-topped VitaMuffins, and even frozen yogurt pies.

The original plain is not quite as tart as other yogurts, making it a good starting point for the tang-wary. Try Oreo or Peachy Keen if you’re looking for some flavor, and if there’s something you would like to see, scrawl it onto the “Suggestions’’ board in chalk (brightly colored, of course). The store offers delivery within 3 or 4 miles, but with boYO such fun, we recommend stopping in for the experience. $3.75 for a regular; 175 Cambridge St., Beacon Hill, 617-227-2696, www.boyofroyo.com.

BerryLine
If rate and location of expansion is any indicator, one of the noted rivalries on the Massachusetts froyo scene is between this locally owned spot and national chains such as Red Mango and Pinkberry. Founded in 2007 by friends Pok Yang and Matthew Wallace, BerryLine wins in overall freshness.

Fruit toppings are crisp and juicy, yogurt creamy, homemade honey oat granola trail-worthy. You would be remiss not to try BerryLine’s Nutella yogurt, a lightly flavored variety that goes especially well with sliced banana and beats out the richer, more overwhelming chocolates of Pinkberry and Red Mango. With Harvard Square, Porter Square, Fenway, and a soon-to-open Newbury Street locations, Berry Line represents the home team with gusto. $3.40 for a medium; 1377 Boylston St, Boston, 617-236-0082, 3 Arrow St., Cambridge, 617-868-3500; 1668 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, 617-492-3555; www.berryline.com.

Berry Freeze
Coconut froyo is everywhere, but no one does coconut quite like Berry Freeze in Coolidge Corner, Brookline. The creamy blend is infused with real coconut paste and flakes for an unparalleled earthy flavor rich in character and substance.

Berry Freeze’s wall of self-serve machines is packed with this raw-source type of flavoring. “Everything we do is homemade,’’ says general manager Paul Cheung. Swirl up blueberry and you find bits of the fruit freckling your yogurt. The flavor at Berry Freeze isn’t just detectable; it’s textural. The toppings bar, which is not for the easily overwhelmed, is stocked with some of the sweetest, freshest fruit we encountered. Berry Freeze tempts you to experiment with its selection. Cap’n Crunch and Sprinkles and jelly beans? Why not? 39 cents per ounce; 273 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-738-3300, www.berryfreeze.com.

Chill
Just off Cleveland Circle in Brighton sits Chill, a standard froyo cafe with typical raspberry, mango, and coconut flavors, plus the original. With a friendly staff and cozy seating arrangement, Chill lives up to its laid-back moniker. But it’s one topping in particular that makes this yogurt vendor worth the visit: mochi. Though many places carry this gummy rice cake topping, Chill takes the crown, delicately capturing the subtle sweetness that makes mochi a great froyo companion. This locally owned shop manages to balance mochi’s tender and chewy qualities for a melt-in-your-mouth texture. $3.30 for a medium plain, $3.40 for flavored; 354 Chestnut Hill Ave., Brighton, 617-232-2445.

Richardson's Ice Cream
Richardson’s is the Bay State’s ice cream royalty. A survey would not be complete without a few scoops of its hand-dipped, tastes-like-ice-cream yogurt. The menu includes a dozen yogurt flavors, each weighing in at 95 percent fat-free. Purple Cow is a thick conglomerate of black raspberry yogurt with dark and white chocolate chips that will impress even the sweetest of sweet teeth. For something creamier, try coffee toffee, with toffee chunks and chocolate chips. $3.47 for any size; 156 South Main St., Middleton, 978-774-5450; 50 Walker’s Brook Drive, Jordan’s Furniture, Reading, 781-944-9121, www.richardsonsicecream.com.

Mixx Frozen Yogurt
Grab a bowl and make your way down the wall of yogurt swirlers in this Allston spot, helping yourself to as few or as many flavors as you like. At Mixx, taro, red velvet, and cheesecake froyo are just the start of an impressively unique roster. Don’t see anything that appeals to you? Come back the following Tuesday; yogurts rotate weekly at this locally owned store.

Immediately after the self-serve row is a buffet-style array of toppings, from peeled lychee to green tea mochi. A standout accouterment is the lychee popping boba — slimy pods of tapioca and juice similar to those chewy spheres at the bottom of your fav 39 cents per ounce; 66 Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-782-6499.orite cup of boba tea.

J.P. Licks
If credit must be given for introducing frozen yogurt to Boston, it should go to Vince Petryk, owner of J.P. Licks. In 1988, Petryk bestowed an as-yet-unseen, tart-tastic treat on the city’s ice cream consuming public. We now know it as tastes-like-yogurt froyo. “People downright hated it back then,’’ says Petryk. The tart froyo was swiftly struck from the J.P. Licks flavor board, never to be seen again.

Never again, that is, until a change in the public’s collective palate. “Twenty-eight years later,’’ Petryk says, “it seems people are much more accepting of a tart product.’’ To that end, he has reintroduced a soft-serve, tastes-like-yogurt recipe under the name Yogurt X. It comes in soft serve and is often accompanied by a spinoff flavor. We tried blood orange, which can best be compared to a Creamsicle with kick: sweet, tangy, tart, and creamy. Welcome back, X. $4.69 for a medium Yogurt X; 352 Newbury St., Boston, 617-236-1666; 1618 Tremont St., Boston, 617-566-6676; 659 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-6740; 1312 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-492-1001; 4A College Ave., Somerville, 617-666-5079; 311 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-738-8252; 46 Langley Road, Newton, 617-244-0666; 661 VFW Parkway, Chestnut Hill, 617-325-1516; 704 Legacy Place, Dedham, 781-329-9100; 63 Central St., Wellesley, 781-416-1799, www.jplicks.com.

BY STEVE MILLER
GLOBE CORRESPONDENT