Oregon Berries Play the Starring Role in New Zealand-Style Ice Cream at Nico’s on Northeast Fremont

Making the soft serve requires an appliance sold by a family of berry farmers located in the country’s Tasman region.

by Jason Cohen

Ice cream in February? Where do you think we are, New Zealand? At Nico’s Ice Cream, yes.

The Northeast Portland shop’s only item, vanilla soft serve-style blended with berries, has its roots in the land of kiwis. It’s also a method for berry farms to get their harvest directly into frozen treats, and requires its own appliance to prepare.

At Nico’s, which started out as a cart in the Prost! Marketplace pod, that’s a Little Jem Elite Real Fruit Ice Cream Blender, which is sold by a particularly able family of berry growers in New Zealand’s Tasman region.

“We import the machine,” says owner Nico Vergara. “You throw vanilla ice cream in there, then put fruit in, and then an auger blends it all together.”

The device basically consists of a cone and a drill that functions like a pastry tip. It’s also magic. The ice cream is nothing more than plain vanilla Tillamook, while the frozen fruit—marionberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries—is sourced from the Willamette Valley Pie Company in Salem. Once the ice cream comes out of the Little Gem, you have something with the butterfat richness of hard-pack, but the airiness and mouthfeel—plus the delightful swirl—of soft serve. It’s also fun to watch your ice cream being made.

The technique is like a more natural version of Flavor Burst—the soft serve machine attachment that allows you to blend flavored syrups and candies into your ice cream—highlighting not only the flavor and color of the fruit, but also the all-important bits of berries and seeds. Marionberry, the most classically Oregon option, is both Nico’s bestseller and Vergara’s favorite. He recommends raspberry if you want something tart, while kids tend to prefer the more familiar strawberry.

Vergara had previously slung New Zealand-style frozen treats at Zeds Real Fruit Ice Cream in Austin, Texas, but the Grant High School alum wanted to be home, and is now in business mere miles from where he grew up in the Rose City Park neighborhood. He hadn’t aspired to go from cart to brick-and-mortar quite so quickly, but plans changed when a space became available—in this case, a spot in the two-story building at Northeast 57th Avenue and Fremont Street that is also home to Peter’s Bar & Grill.

Nico’s menu keeps things simple: You choose one of the four berry flavors for a cup ($5) or waffle cone ($6)—kids’ cones are $4—then pick your toppings: rainbow sprinkles, toasted coconut flakes, graham cracker dust, chamoy (a pickled fruit-and-pepper sauce) and Tajín (a pepper, lime and sea salt seasoning). The last two are usually found at fruit stands or in Mexican supermarket candies.

“Those are toppings that are near and dear to my heart, me being from a Latinx background,” says Vergara, who is Chilean American. “I just thought it would be fun to bring some of my heritage and twist it into the New Zealand-style ice cream.”

Pro tip: Double up on toppings (no extra charge)—graham cracker dust on chamoy, for instance, or Tajín and coconut.

Eventually, Vergara hopes to make his own vanilla ice cream base. The Little Jem is also capable of mixing in chocolate, coffee and other ingredients, but for now, Nico’s is all about the fruit, especially on “Tropical Thursday,” when the berries are replaced by mango, pineapple and banana. There have also been a few collaborations, including one with Pip’s Original Doughnuts (yup, the mini-doughnuts went right in the blender), a Timbers-themed strawberry green matcha ice cream with Tea Bar, and coming soon, a sticky toffee pudding soft serve with Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard soccer bar the Toffee Club.

Once the weather warms, Vergara’s cart will reopen at Prost! Until then, Nico’s Ice Cream blesses us with a taste of summer during winter. After all, this is a city where people line up for ice cream anywhere and any time.

“Yeah, I crack jokes with my family or my buddies,” Vergara says. “If you’re a true Portlander it really doesn’t matter, the time of year for ice cream.”

GO: Nico’s Ice Cream, 5713 NE Fremont St., 503-489-8656, nicosicecream.com. 3-9pm Wednesday-Friday and noon-9 pm Saturday-Sunday.