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Icy, spicy, cool

Handmade paletas -- Mexican ice pops -- play sweet and hot notes with cutting-edge style.

August 22, 2007|Betty Hallock | Times Staff Writer

SUMMERTIME is paleta time. These Mexican ice pops -- chock-full of chunks of fresh fruit and available in a hypnotizing array of colors and clear, not-too-sweet flavors -- conjure images of hot afternoons in the park, time spent on a bench under a shady tree, clear blue skies dotted with red, white and green balloons.

That's not just some idyllic Latino-Rockwellian fantasy. On a recent 80-degree-plus weekend in the courtyard of Plaza Mexico in Lynwood, a family of five took advantage of a park bench and a view of a replica of the Ángel de la Independencia, each of them holding fast to summer by his or her Popsicle stick. Customers at the nearby Paletería La Michoacana, a small, often crowded shop tucked into a corner of the plaza, lined up for paletas in flavors such as tamarindo, hibiscus flower and mango con chile. (If summer in L.A. had a flavor, it might be mango con chile.)

But if you haven't yet visited one of L.A.'s many neighborhood paleterías, you most likely haven't experienced fresh, handcrafted made-on-the-premises ice pops. Really, you've never had Popsicles or ice cream bars like these -- a treat so idolized that one city in Michoacán has even raised a statue of a paleta at the entrance to the town.

Luckily, the paletería business here is expanding, reaching Latinos and non-Latinos alike. Cities in Mexico might boast a paleta shop on every other corner; maybe Southern California is catching up.

"We really wanted to introduce paletas to non-Latinos," says Monica Ulla, co-owner of one-year-old La Mich Paletería, located in a major shopping center in Duarte. She and her partner have plans to open other shops in Los Angeles. "A lot of paleterías are located in Hispanic neighborhoods because they can do good business.

"Anyone who's not familiar with paletas might think they're just Popsicles. We have to explain that everything's made with fresh fruit, and that they're all made in the store every day -- we do everything by hand. And then they fall in love with the flavors."


A Proustian power

For those already intimately familiar with them, paletas have Proustian power, their flavors based on those traditionally found in Mexico: creamy, sweet mamey, a fruit that tastes almost like a cross between sweet potato and avocado; tuna, the fruit of the nopales cactus; custardy chongos, sweet curdled milk with cinnamon; cajeta, or caramel; grosella, a type of currant; pepino con chile, cucumbers with chile; rompope, a rum-flavored ice cream bar that tastes a lot like egg nog; arroz, a rice ice cream bar spiked with pieces of cinnamon stick; guanabana, or soursop; nance, the tiny, slightly acidic tropical fruit often listed on paleta menus as yellow cherries.

Traditional, yeah, but to some, they might seem cutting-edge, even -- or especially -- at a time when pastry chefs can't seem to stop putting their reinvented Creamsicles on restaurant menus and the "frozen yogurt wars" have reached the peak of tediousness.

The menus of paletas from shop to shop might echo one another, but each paletero will have his own flair.

The world of paletas, which translates literally as "trowels," is divided in two: paletas de aguas (water-and-juice-based pops) and paletas de leche, or de crema, (milk- or cream-based pops). The icy paletas de aguas are beautifully, barely transparent and have pieces of fruit suspended throughout (though sometimes concentrated at the stick end because the fruit floats to the top of the mold during quiescent freezing).

Bite into a paleta de leche, and it's a little creamy when your teeth first sink into it, but at the center there are still compact ice crystals, the stuff that gives you tingles of pleasure. Stacked up in freezer cases, they sort of look like individually wrapped troops in formation -- the purple ones together, the red, the yellow, the ones with inserted panes of membrillo or guava paste, all for about $1.50 each.

They're more straightforward than raspados (shaved ice often layered with fruit and syrup) and more transportable than ice cream cones -- people show up with their coolers outfitted with dry ice and buy dozens of paletas at a time, hence the "buy-10-get-2-free" (or even "buy-20-get-4-free") offers.

"Sometimes people say, 'What's so hard about making paletas?' " says Rogelio Garcia, owner of Delicias de México, a bright-pink-and-white-striped paleta parlor in Garden Grove in the shadow of the 22 Freeway.

On hot days he might make as many as 500 to 1,000 paletas. "It's not as easy as you'd think." But he's not giving up any secrets, family secrets. His recipes, which include a paleta de leche studded with corn, and a pico de gallo paleta made with pineapple, jicama, cucumber and mango, are from cousins who own ice-cream parlors in Tijuana and Enseñada. (He also makes a simple but amazing mangoneada -- a frozen mango pop in a plastic cup, flavored with lemon and salt and dipped in tart chamoy syrup, made from a plum-like fruit.)

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