A Farrell’s of Fun
Can your cynical veneer withstand the assault on the senses, sensibilities and sentimentality that is Farrell’s?
Everyone except me, it seems, has a Farrell’s-related memory. Usually, it’s a birthday involving an excess of ice cream served by guys who look like they’re from a barbershop quartet, with bow ties, vests and straw skimmer hats. When it was announced that a Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour would be opening at the Shops at Mission Viejo, everyone I spoke to had an “Oh, I remember when” story to share.
Judging by the lines leading to its doors at the end of the mall’s food court (right next to another wholly American invention, P.F. Chang’s), a lot of people are eager to relive those memories—and perhaps imprint new ones onto their kids. The only OC outlet of the resurrected old-time ice-cream-parlor chain—which started in 1963, grew to 130 stores nationwide, but dwindled to only one by 1995—now boasts queues as long as those for a certain Twittering Korean taco truck.
After a wait time of about an hour, we were treated to a mostly aural assault on our senses. It reminded my date, not so fondly, of the circus. It reminded me that this is the living incarnation of and possibly the inspiration for Phineas Q. Butterfat, the fictional ice-cream parlor on The Simpsons at which Homer tried to win back his daughter’s love by buying her a mountain of ice cream. And for once, the cartoon was not an exaggeration.
More than a few times during our first visit, another group would order the Farrell’s Zoo, a ridiculous serving of ice cream piled into an industrial-sized mixing bowl overflowing with ladles upon ladles of sugary sauces, fistfuls of nuts and whipped cream, all topped with a sparkler. And every spectacle was heralded by an employee banging on a bass drum and the blaring of alarm sirens, followed by a shrill-voiced server shouting out the order.
The tub of ice cream was then ceremoniously delivered to the table on a custom-made stretcher, where either Adam Richman or 10 people who don’t mind sharing one another’s germs presumably consumed it. A more appropriate name for it would be a Pig’s Trough—but that title is already reserved for a smaller serving of ice cream.
After the third consecutive Farrell’s Zoo, we realized practically every party had a birthday or special occasion to celebrate. One birthday “boy” was a middle-aged, overweight man who could’ve done without one serving of ice cream, let alone 10. But he sure looked happy!
People seem to surrender their sense of restraint at Farrell’s. They figure, “Well, as long as we’re here, why the hell not?” A woman in the line behind me warned her guests that neither the food nor the ice cream is really the reason to be there—it’s the experience, she said.
As for the food, the burgers tasted similar to those of another faded icon of yesteryear, Bob’s Big Boy. And though the crimson-tinged corned beef in the Reuben was too chewy and too salty, the whole sandwich succeeded in its sloppy decadence. Thin-crust pizzas were better than expected—in spite of the drier-than-dust chicken chunks in their white, garlic-flavored pie. And when your nose detects a pungent, garlicky odor in the air, it’s because you’re downwind from someone who ordered the garlic fries. The waffle fries were just as well-done, deep-fried long enough so that not a single waffle became soggy even after a dousing of chili, cheese and scallions.
But what of the ice cream? Though they’re mostly built from only a few basic flavors, with the generic consistency of Dreyer’s, the fun is in choosing how they are to be assembled. A banana split, for instance, is slightly different from a banana royale. And when you want a more elaborate setup short of the Farrell’s Zoo, there’s the Mt. Saint Helen, in which an alcohol-soaked sugar cube is set aflame atop the dessert.
Even without the pyrotechnics, most of the ice cream seems to be halfway melted by the time it arrives, leaving you to slurp a soupy mixture by the end. But it didn’t melt away nearly as fast as my cynicism. After one bite of an ice cream-soaked cookie, I saw a little girl look up at her father with a face that said, “Thank you for bringing me here, Daddy!”
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On another visit, with our ears now accustomed to the din, we witnessed another Farrell’s Zoo order. This time, the recipient was a large clan celebrating a couple’s 57th wedding anniversary. They had the pair stand up and wave. Then the woman leaned over to kiss her husband on the cheek. The octogenarian’s already-rosy cheeks blushed even further. The whole restaurant sighed a collective “Aaaw.” A lump rose in my throat. And there it was: my own Farrell’s memory.
Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, 799 The Shops Blvd., Mission Viejo, (949) 364-5411; www.farrellsusa.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundaes from $5.99; Farrell’s Zoo, $49.99. Beer and wine.