“We try to keep our ingredients monosyllabic,” Taos Cow proprietor Jamie Leeson told me as I perused a sampling of the flavors his Arroyo Seco-based ice cream company had been turning out for two decades. Made from New Mexican milk untarnished by growth hormones or unpronounceable chemicals, Leeson said he was proud of the simplicity of his product.
“What is your favorite flavor?” I asked.
“I have really been a fan of sweet cream,” Leeson replied. “No flavorings at all.”
The basic ingredients of Taos Cow’s ice cream, Leeson said, are of such high quality that they can stand on their own.
It sounded a little too simple for my own sweet tooth. Passing up tempting flavors like lavender and Mexican chocolate, I decided to try a hearty scoop of piñon caramel.
The tooth was certainly satisfied, but there is also something wholesome and clean about Taos Cow ice cream that offers a sharp contrast to the sugar overload so many pints of factory-packed confection can provide.
Leeson, a Rhode Island native, arrived in Arroyo Seco in the early ’90s to ski for a season before attending law school. A ski bum at heart, he never went back to school. Instead, he founded Taos Cow in 1993 with a previous business partner and some second-hand equipment. The company initially produced hand-packed tubs of ice cream wholesale for local restaurants and grocery stores. As the business grew, Taos Cow established a shop down the street from its present location on Highway 150 in 1995. At the same time, Leeson and his partner sought to roll out Taos Cow on store shelves nationwide. Leeson said the moment seemed right as consumers were taking an interest in natural foods.
“rBGH-free was a big deal,” Leeson said, using the shorthand for recombinant bovine growth hormone — now common in dairy products. “There were studies coming out that farmers were using too much of the hormones and we knew it was a really bad gig.”
At one point, pints of Taos Cow could be found at retailers in 15 states. The company could not compete in a price war against the likes of Haagen-Dazs or Ben and Jerry’s, however.
“They dump more ice cream down the drain than we make in a year,” Leeson said.
In 2000, Taos Cow refocused on its store in Arroyo Seco. A new partner joined the company and mass-production was abandoned.
Though Arroyo Seco had seemed “like the end of the world” when Leeson first arrived, backpackers and gourmands alike still beat a trail to Taos Cow. Bon Appetit and USA Today have ranked the ice cream store among the best in America.
As customers stepped up to the counter to order everything from huevos rancheros to almond croissants, however, it was clear that Taos Cow had earned a reputation as much more than a place to grab a scoop of rocky road.
The breakfast and lunch menu spanned a chalkboard the length of the store.
Next year, Leeson said, he will be gunning to win the title of best coffee shop in Taos.
“Best Reuben sandwich, too,” Leeson added. “I think we could win that.”