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This Treat's a Rivalry on a Stick

On Balboa Island, two storefronts each serve the 'original' Balboa bar. Who's right? There's a history and a hint of espionage.

August 15, 2005|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

They stand less than 100 feet apart on Balboa Island's main drag, two food stands that have come through good times and bad on the strength of a simple confection: the Balboa bar.

The snack is a block of ice cream -- usually vanilla -- on a stick and dipped in melted chocolate, then rolled in peanuts or sprinkles. And during the warm summer months when the onshore breeze isn't enough to cool things down, folks line up a dozen deep for a Balboa bar.

Trouble is, which shop to patronize? Both of the street-fronts -- Dad's Donut & Bakery Shop and Sugar & Spice -- tout theirs as the original Balboa bar.

"Is one more original than the other?" asked Ryan Gilgosch, 21, of Glendale, Ariz., who was visiting with his girlfriend and family.

He paced between the two stores, compared prices, compared toppings offered, watched customers order. Finally, he walked up to the window at Sugar & Spice, which also offers hot dogs and pretzels.

"They both claim to be originals, but we came to Sugar & Spice because they had a date on their signs," said Gilgosch, pointing to a small, white sign above the storefront: "The original since 1945."

Over at Dad's, where doughnuts, coffee and smoothies are also served, signs read, "Dad's Original Frozen Banana," "Dad's Original Balboa Bars" and "Established in 1960."

The sweets have been popular for decades. For Pam Hall and her friend Kathy Kayirin, both of Newport Beach, they frequented Sugar & Spice while pushing strollers around the island 22 years ago. They returned recently to Dad's for a fix.

"I don't taste the difference," Kayirin said. "They both are creamy. They're both rich. They look the same. They taste exactly alike. We just stopped by the closest one to the island entrance."

Vann Yam bought Dad's in 1990; Helen Connolly bought Sugar & Spice in 1995. The shops are each adorned with blue and white paint and huge banana billboards on top. A small chapel and a clothing boutique separate them.

Connolly, who lives on Balboa Island, said Yam copied her. A year after she bought the store, she said, Dad's put up signs stating that it's the original Balboa bar maker. Then she painted her awnings blue, she said, and so did Dad's. Later, she said, she created the Heath pecan crunch dipping, and Dad's sent a boy to her shop to steal her recipe and came up with a similar creation: the butter brickle.

"I told the girls not to give away my recipe," Connolly said. "They sent a handsome boy over to chat up one of my girls and she spilled the beans."

Yam denied Connolly's account and said neither store was an original because it had previous owners. Both owners were taught by previous owners how to adequately freeze the bars, dip them and create the various types of sprinkles.

Through the years, they've come up with their own touches, satisfying hundreds of islanders and tourists each day. The competition is healthy and the bars taste the same, the owners acknowledge.

"No one really knows for sure who is the original," said Yam, 40, of Huntington Beach. "We had very, very old customers who told us they came here with their children a long time ago to buy Balboa bars."

The competition over an ice cream bar has its laughs.

"It just seems kind of silly," said Connolly, 68. "But it's fun because people come by and say, 'Tell us the truth, who is the original?' It does keep people stopping by. I don't know how many times I have to explain it every day."

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