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A Date With a Great Shake

September 09, 1998|LEILAH BERNSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"What's your best shake?" a hurried customer asks as she approaches the front counter of the shake shop proprietor Russ Cugno calls the Land of Fruits and Nuts.

"The one you pick for you!" Cugno answers with a rumbling chuckle that shakes his body. He places a menu in the woman's hands.

She scans it, and, after a few moments deliberation, chooses a sun-dried fruit milkshake. She sips the shake and her face relaxes. A dreamy smile appears. It's a look Cugno, 44, has seen many times before, and it makes him chuckle again.

Cugno knows that ice cream has the power to melt away many troubles, and his Land of Fruits and Nuts, on board the Queen Mary in Long Beach, offers customers more than 50 ways to get their frozen comfort.

And Cugno doesn't settle for plain strawberry, vanilla or chocolate shakes on his menu. Yo Mama Mango, Blessed Blueberry, Cravin' Cranberry and Papa Papaya shakes are more like it. California dried fruits and nuts go into most of his 16-ounce creations. And then there are the chocolate combination shakes, including California Dream (chocolate chips, almonds and raisins), the Snicker (chocolate chips, chocolate syrup and Snickers' bars) and Chocolate Banana (Ghirardelli chocolate chips and sweet banana chips). Fresh fruit is not used in his shakes because he thinks dried fruit makes a better shake.

"We have a problem with people asking for fresh banana," Cugno admits. "But we tell them to try the banana chips, and once they do, they love it!"

The dried fruits and nuts, in fact, concentrate the flavors, making them more intense when Cugno mixes them with French vanilla ice cream, whole milk and the occasional dab of flavored syrup. His Chewy Pineapple shake, for instance, uses sun-dried pineapple and Monin's blackberry syrup. The combination is extremely sweet but very good. You can even taste the chunks of pineapple. And forget about using a straw; go for a spoon. According to one of Cugno's slogans, "Our Shakes Don't Suck."

When he opened Land of Fruits and Nuts--or LOFAN, as he sometimes calls it--in June 1994, Cugno sought to combine two of California's largest industries: tourism and agriculture. He hoped to reintroduce a newer generation to the roadside fruit and nut stands that once dotted the California highways.

He sold gift baskets filled with dried fruits and nuts, many grown in an Orange County orchard, in addition to individually wrapped packages of the same. By June 1996, Cugno had started experimenting with milkshakes, using his dried fruits and nuts to create different combinations. Customers were so pleased that the business changed focus and became a shake shop. Cugno, meanwhile, acquired a new name: Mr. MilkShake. Of course, LOFAN still makes gift baskets to order, and packages of dried apricots, orange slices, dates, peaches, peanut brittle and other sweet goodies can be found on the store's shelves.

Cugno's shakes follow in the tradition of the popular date shake, which has become a mainstay of the Coachella Valley and other California desert areas. These inland regions produce most of the United States' supply of commercial dates. Places like Valerie Jean Date Garden, in Thermal, soak fresh dates in water to soften them before mixing with vanilla ice milk. The store's original owner, Russ Nicoll, is considered the inventor of the American date shake. He started his business as a roadside stand in 1928.

Today, with the sea breeze blowing by Cugno's door on the Queen Mary's Promenade deck, the Desert Date shake is listed first on the menu. A brief description calls it the "famous Palm Springs recipe, packed with dates!"--dried dates only, of course. It's the favorite shake of Cugno's mother, Mary, who owns a seashell shop a few doors down.

As for Cugno's favorite, well, that's somewhat harder to determine. There are so many favorites, he says. But finally, moving his finger down the menu, Cugno stops at the AMC (Almond Mocha Chip). This is one of his coffee shakes, which uses coffee ice cream instead of French vanilla. Hmmm. No dried fruit.

Children, on the other hand, tend to prefer Cugno's Oreo Cookie milkshake, while the CVC shake (Cherry Vanilla Chocolate) usually is second runner-up. It doesn't surprise Cugno that neither the Snicker or the Reese's Special are kids' top choices. "It's a foreign concept to kids to have a candy bar in a milkshake," he says.

Of course, few would ever envision pie in a shake, but Cugno puts real pie filling, cinnamon and whipped cream in his Apple Pie a la Mode shake.

Cugno describes his California Split as a banana split in a cup. In addition to the milk and ice cream, it includes whole strawberries, dried pineapple, banana chips, strawberry and pineapple syrups, Hershey's chocolate syrup, whipped cream and slivered almonds.

Stick around the Land of Fruits and Nuts long enough and you'll start to think that there's not much in the world a shake can't handle.

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