Come Summer, a Sweet Escape

photo by Jack Nuelle

photo by Jack Nuelle

The Sugar Shack, Bridgeport’s only spot for ice cream and funnel cake, is like a carnival without the rides. It sure looks the part: beside a huge flashing sign emblazoned with a vanilla soft serve cone, the storefront has only sliding screen windows to hand food through. It’s the kind of place that would fit in on any boardwalk or fairground in America, and yet here it is at 630 W. 26th Street, where the only eye-catching attraction is the cavernous underbelly of the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Despite its urban environs, The Sugar Shack still presents a valid summer experience through and through. On a cool Wednesday night in May, the line snakes around the wrought iron patio tables lining 26th Street. One family with a girl holding a miniature Yorkshire Terrier stands next to a gaggle of teenagers slurping milkshakes. Another little girl walks past with her mom, loudly fantasizing about all the ice cream she could get. In the shop, three employees scurry about, frying funnel cake, making drinks, and taking orders. It bustles with a seasonal rhythm and a promise of sweet escapism.

The Sugar Shack is owned and operated by the Panatera family, who have only officially been in management for six of The Sugar Shack’s twelve years. However, they seem to be have adopted a winning strategy: find a tasty formula and stick with it.

Indeed, the Sugar Shack offers nothing revolutionary. The ice cream is not even homemade (though the Italian ice is). But that’s also beside the point. The Sugar Shack is taking established summer staples, doing them simply, and doing them well. Family member and manager Michelle Panatera tells me that “we did have competition down the road over on Halsted, and they ended up closing down.” That may be because the Sugar Shack has managed to take something simple and familiar and lace it with something that’s often missing: comfort.

Their product is pretty damn good too. Their famous funnel cake sundae is golden brown, crispy, and fried to perfection. It comes complete with three heaping scoops of ice cream covered by one dry and one wet topping, along with the standard whipped cream and cherry. Toppings range from your basic brownie pieces to the relatively unique Fruity Pebbles cereal–actually described as “fire” by an enthusiastic patron. Surprisingly enough, he was absolutely right. Those Fruity Pebbles meld perfectly with vanilla ice cream, the fruity tang of the cereal accented against the more basic vanilla. And its appealing crunch added a special texture to the smooth soft serve. That, combined with a slathering of hot fudge and the crispy dough of the funnel cake base, creates a comfort food sensation that may require some help to finish. For those with less cavernous stomachs, the Sugar Shack also serves mini funnel cake sundaes, which are topped with the same toppings, but are smaller in scale.

The Sugar Shack is cheap as well. A mini funnel cake sundae will run you $3.75 plus tax, a large $6.55. This fact, combined with the quality of the product and its community appeal, means the Sugar Shack doesn’t need carnival attractions alongside its carnival fare to draw the masses. A solid product on the cheap will do that just fine. Plus, in the end, who can resist fried dough?

The Sugar Shack, 630 W. 26th Street. Open late-April through mid-October. Sunday-Thursday, noon-10pm; Friday-Saturday, noon-11pm. (312)225-6568.