Growing up, Bay Area native Lori Phillips had a particular love for chocolate ice cream tacos. She has fond memories of visiting Taco Bell as a child, just to order a Choco Taco — the waffle cone taco shell with fudge-swirled ice cream that Klondike recently announced has been discontinued after 39 years.
At the time, Phillips never could have imagined she’d later start her own business dedicated to creating revamped versions of the ice cream treat. In fact, it wasn’t until she tried it again as an adult and was hit with a wave of nostalgia that she felt a desire to improve on the now-defunct novelty dessert. “It’s a genius and fantastic concept,” Phillips says. “The product itself captures so much nostalgia and has a bit of a cult following, but I can’t help but feel like it was made for kids. I wanted to remake it with higher quality ingredients and a waffle cone shell that wouldn’t get soggy.”
Phillips, the founder of Rocko’s Ice Cream Tacos in Santa Clara, is devoted to handcrafting intact, texturally satiating tacos filled with velvety ice cream, dipped in a chocolate or peanut butter coating and topped with crispy, crunchy additions. She sources organic ingredients locally, including produce from Full Belly Farm, dairy from Straus, and chocolate from Berkeley-based TCHO. Phillips uses liquid nitrogen to flash freeze the treats, likening the taco-building process to a sweet science experiment.
It’s an apt comparison considering Phillips started her ice cream taco journey while she was getting her Ph.D. at Stanford in immunology. “The first batch of liquid nitrogen was actually one that I took from my lab,” Phillips says. But what started as a passion project in 2012 soon became a stand at farmers markets and fairs, and a few years later, she invested in a truck to expand Rocko’s to commissaries and catering. In 2018, Phillips opened a brick-and-mortar shop near Santa Clara University.
The shop is plastered with imagery of dogs, an ode to Phillips’ pup named Rocko, and radiates a spunkiness that speaks to the creativity the ice cream tacos embody. With 18 ice cream flavors — nine year-round and nine rotating — coupled with a choice of four dips and a variety of toppings, the potential taco combinations can seem practically endless.
In actuality, Rocko’s ice cream flavors are relatively simple without too many mix-ins. That’s because the taco works as a package, in which the toppings are also allowed to shine. The freshly baked taco shells, which come in a regular or a “teeny” size, hold all the complementary elements together. And though visitors are empowered to customize their tacos to their liking, the shop also lists some recommended “tried and true” combinations, including Phillips’ favorite. Appropriately named “The Founder,” this taco is filled with espresso-flavored ice cream, dipped in dark chocolate, and covered in almond pieces.
The most commonly ordered taco combinations incorporate cookies and cream ice cream, with “The Youngster” being a frequent hit — a taco with cookies and cream ice cream, milk chocolate coating, and sprinkles. It’s also worth noting that the shop offers three vegan flavors at any given time and a vegan and gluten-free waffle cone shell. For Phillips, it was important that Rocko’s would appeal to those of all ages — those who want to reminisce on a childhood favorite, as well as younger customers eager to try a new rendition of a frozen treat.
So though it may be the end of an era for Choco Taco fans, the legacy lives on in the South Bay.