Head to Underground Creamery in the Heights, and you’ll likely get a glimpse through its pick-up window of founder Josh Deleon at work, but don’t expect him to stop what he’s doing. Later, there’ll be a line of antsy customers snaking the sidewalk outside, and they’ll only want one thing — ice cream.
“They can see me clearly, but I’m going to keep working,” he says. “I don’t mean to be a dick, but I’m trying to make as much ice cream as I can.”
The self-taught ice cream maker has been whipping together unique flavors since his pop-up days in 2020, garnering long lines and intrigue comparable to exclusive clothing drops a la streetwear brands like Supreme. His sought-after, catch-’em-if-you-can flavors include sorbets and cobblers that incorporate fruit and crumble or graham cracker crunch, like his basil-infused ice cream with cinnamon blueberry compote and honey corn streusel. He also offers other deeper, richer flavors, like the decadent CCCs (or three Cs, most often a combination of chocolate, caramel, and cookies) — an Oreo ice cream swirled with salted caramel — or his chocolatey limited edition, Turtle Power, which is loaded with salted pecans.
It’s not just his ice cream that feels exclusive. Deleon, too, has earned a reputation for being elusive, a disposition he’s unapologetic about. After all, he never really wanted to be in the spotlight or the face of a food business, he says, hence his “underground” model. Instead of operating a traditional scoop shop, Deleon hosts drop dates when he’ll publish his inventory of flavors each week through an online platform, selling out his $14-a-pint ice cream within minutes. Customers then collect their flavors from a pick-up window, highlighted by a neon, fluorescent ice cream bowl, during specific time slots on Sundays and Mondays.
But ice cream wasn’t always Deleon’s MO.
A University of Houston alum with a degree in mechanical engineering, Deleon says ice cream became a vice and hobby during his powerlifting days, when he and other “jacked dudes” bonded over cheat meals and indulgences. The metric was simple: “Is [this junk food] worth your time or calories?”
Deleon, who recalls devouring around 300 pints of junk food-flavored ice cream during this time, began reviewing on his Instagram @EatsGoneWild different types of the cold comfort food before deciding in 2018 that he wanted to try making some of his own.
The first flavor was, naturally, cookies and cream — a combination of sweet cream ice cream with Oreo cookies tossed in. The recipe was good, but his ice cream “was garbage,” he recalls, noting that he had little understanding of what the ice cream should have looked like. Still, it motivated him to get it right. He stayed the course — sifting through more cookbooks, experimenting with more ingredients, and using his engineering degree to further learn the mechanics of ice cream making. “I thought, This is the way I want to share my creativity,” he says, but he wanted to go far beyond the run-of-the-mill flavors often found in grocery stores or even the plentiful flavors offered in Houston’s ice cream scoop shops. The local scene is saturated with creative takes from places like Craft Creamery, which boasts brisket and pho flavors, and Fat Cat Creamery, with which Deleon has collaborated, but he still reasoned that there was room for more.
He cut back his hours at his full-time job to dedicate more time to making ice cream, storing his creations in “little, shitty deli cups” labeled in Sharpie in his home kitchen. Like his reviews, Deleon shared the outcome of his creations on his Instagram. His direct message inbox flooded with dozens of inquiries, and he began selling ice cream through a Google document that was accessible only to those who inquired or requested it from him directly. “There was never any indication on my Instagram page that I was selling anything, but people would just hit me up and ask, ‘How can I buy this one?’”
As his popularity grew, more people within the restaurant industry and customers began encouraging Deleon to venture outside of his apartment to sell his ice cream, and in 2020, Deleon hosted his first pop-up in Sugar Land at OMG Burger. The line wrapped around the corner, he remembers. “I realized I screwed up at that point,” he says, noting that the demand far exceeded the supply; a week and a half’s worth of spinning ice cream in his at-home machine sold out in 45 minutes.
“I think the fact that I show excitement makes our customer base more enthused, and I use really good ingredients just because I like them. I’m very particular about my products.” He explains his preference for quality dairy, high-quality chocolates like Callebaut and Valrhona*, and Diamond Crystal kosher salt, which he notes has less salinity and is more forgiving. “Details like that matter.”
Still, Deleon decided to pursue his dream full force, implementing spreadsheets and Google Docs as a way to anticipate orders and underpromise and overdeliver, while also scheduling set pick-up times. Sometimes people would order in groups, he says, and a whole “squadron” would come to pick up their ice cream.
But after his second pop-up, he encountered a new roadblock: Someone had reported him to the Texas Department of State Health Services, and with his business not protected by Texas Cottage Laws, he had to either find a storefront with suitable amenities to run a food business or shut down.
“I kinda got scared at that point, and so I legitimized it,” Deleon says. “I started the company officially.” Shortly after, he made labels, branding it as “underground” ice cream. He began working with restaurant Tatemó at the former Black Labrador off Montrose Boulevard for months, but after parting ways with the business, he had to look for a new space.
In August 2021, after at least a six-month-long break from making ice cream, Deleon signed a lease with Van Teamer, owner of Pudgy’s Fine Cookies in the Heights, where they now share a kitchen. Deleon began packaging his ice cream in his side space, which distributes through a window.
Since relaunching his ice cream drops in May 2022, Deleon says he’s experimented with more than 500 flavors, which he rarely repeats, constantly tweaking topping or swirl combinations. Each week, he offers two to three flavors in small batches through the platform Hotplate, which gives customers just minutes to check out. But even that is too generous: The ice cream sells out in 30 seconds or less, with Deleon receiving around 4,000 orders, of which only about 10 percent are fulfilled.
“It’s a very no-frills type of deal, but it’s buying something other people can’t get, so I think it makes it more special,” Deleon says.
Many of his early flavors stemmed from junk food and nostalgia, with a large emphasis on Oreo cookies and Nabisco treats. Since then, though, Deleon has tried more complex flavors, mostly fueled by his curiosity.
“I have autopilot flavors,” he says. “But when I make something new, it’s a little more personal. It’s all a little labor-intensive. It’ll hit all the notes. I wouldn’t put anything out unless I think it’s great.”
At the same time, he says, he’s not making ice cream to please people. Instead, his business is fueled by his own curiosity and goal to further push himself to experiment, he says. “Some people like it, and some people hate it. The people who like it, we have the same flavor preferences. I just like the fact you order it, secure it, and get on with your day,” he says.
Much of Deleon’s unique model is the result of largely working alone, making ice cream sometimes 11 hours a day with some assistance from his brother, his best friend Jana Havey, and his fiancee, who largely now handles his marketing and social media. Deleon says he hopes to expand his business eventually and has already received offers from several investors — but he’s turned them all down.
“I put so much work into making a really good product, and having an investor means having other people tell me what to do. I don’t want that to happen,” he says. “I have two hands and 24 hours in a day. My work stems from a hobby, and I do things in a certain way, and I’m simply not ready to train people. I have my own curiosity that I need to fulfill.”
But then again, he doesn’t really have the time to overthink the future. He’s got a bigger priority in mind.
“I’m elusive for a reason; I’m making ice cream.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include the correct brands of chocolate that Underground Creamery owner Josh Deleon uses in his ice cream, which includes Callebaut and Valrhona. Eater Houston regrets the error.