The Land of the Rising Sun has a deep love affair with dairy—evident in the popularity of milk candies to cheesecakes to cheese tarts—and we’re privileged to have them available through the growing number of Japanese (and Japanese-inspired) franchises on our shores.

Adding to the list, much to our delight, is cheese soft-serve ice cream. Meant to be flavored with “cheese”, observation tells us this encompasses fromage in both the savory sense (e.g., what you’d stuff in a sandwich or put on a cheese plate) and the sweet sense (e.g., cheesecakes). Three brands in particular have appeared on our radar in the past year, all from known cheese dessert franchises (two from Japan, one local). But how do they compare?

Pablo (Php 150/cup or cone)

Pablo brings a great balance of vanilla and cheesecake-esque flavors on their soft-serve.

APPEARANCE: Compared to the yellow-tinged other two, Pablo’s soft-serve is lighter in color (if not practically white).

TASTE: This soft-serve shines for its strong, nostalgic vanilla flavor that ends with just the subtlest hint of lemony tang. It’s not the cheesiest-tasting, best resembling a vanilla-heavy cheesecake than straight-up cheese in the savory sense. (One of our team members even remarks they wouldn’t have guessed it was meant to be cheese-flavored had they not been primed with that fact). The resulting profile is not too far off from the flavor of Pablo’s signature mini cheese tarts, especially when paired with the toasty cone that resembles the cheese tarts’ crust.

TEXTURE: You get a smooth and velvety mouthfeel that’s just a dream on the tongue. Though soft as the name implies, there’s ample body and richness as you lick to assure you that this is the premium stuff.

Cow Cow (Php 150/cup without toppings)

Check out our first impressions piece for a more in-depth look at this scoop—er, swirl.

APPEARANCE: This Japan-hailing brand’s version is pale yellow in color and on the opaque side, resembling whipped butter.

TASTE: Cow Cow’s Cheese ice is made with two cheeses in the mix: cream cheese and Hokkaido Gouda cheese. It is ultra-creamy in a way you can tell there’s real dairy cream in there, along with an overarching buttery character. You get but a hint of savoriness and a smidge of funk that a counters the creaminess, but there is minimal tang and the overall flavor swings toward neutral. This is somewhat similar to the brand’s signature cheese cookies, where the cheeses that form their flavors enhance the cookies’ more latent note of butter without taking over.

TEXTURE: It’s in the texture that Cow Cow’s really stands out. It manages to juggle its silky-smoothness and heft in body with a distinctively whippy, airy consistency somewhat reminiscent of mousse desserts.

LAVA (Php 85/Cone)

LAVA’s is for those who really like their cheese treats to taste like, well, cheese.

APPEARANCE: This homegrown company’s soft-serve leans toward being yellow in color, like Cow Cow’s—just a touch glossier.

TASTE: Similar to their mini cheese tarts, LAVA interprets the ‘cheese-flavored’ aspect of their soft-serve in a more straightforward manner. It’s still sweet as expected, but carries a surprising savoriness. There’s a hint of pungency that reminds us of gorgonzola; nuttiness that brings to mind queso de bola; and a subtle tang reminiscent of that of a mild yogurt or kesong puti. As with the cheese tarts, it’s a polarizing choice—but for this savory-on-sweet loving author, it works.

TEXTURE: This soft-serve isn’t icy per se, but you do find more micro ice crystals here compared the other two brands’ silky-smooth, ultra-creamy versions. In the background there’s a sticky quality to it, similar to the soft-serve at Jollibee in that it clings and stretches onto the spoon. It seems to melt faster and doesn’t feel as rich and premium as the others (which isn’t surprising, given its more affordable price). We don’t mind though, as its unique flavor is the star of the show here anyway.

The Verdict: Pablo

It was a tough call on this battle. Each brand has its own strengths, marginally beating the others in different categories. LAVA’s, though not our favorite texture-wise, shines for its straightforward interpretation of a cheese dessert gives it a distinctly sweet and savory quality. Cow Cow’s, though expensive and subtle-tasting, excels for its rich, creamy body and uniquely whippy consistency that tells you they do not skimp on using quality ingredients. But in terms of which soft-serve gives the best of both worlds, we have to give the award to Pablo’s ultra-smooth, just-rich enough, and vanilla-heavy cheesecake-evoking version. On a cone and enjoy it solo, or on a cup for sharing, it’s brings the right amount of sweetness and cheesiness that makes the season of hearts a special one.

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