Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Paletography of Los Angeles - Part One

Display case of paletas de agua at Mateo's
 It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. The mission? A comprehensive survey of paletas, or Mexican ice-pops in Los Angeles. No simple popsicle, paletas are made in small shops with fresh fruit and exotic ingredients, and can be simple and sweet or complicated combinations of flavors that include chile, cucumber, dried fruits, and other seasonings.

I have a list of a dozen paleta shops, ranging from Culver City to Anaheim and El Monte, that are noted as great examples of the Mexican paleta tradition. It will take several excursions to explore them all, but today we made the first foray. We packed a cooler with ice so we could bring samples back to taste and compare.

Mateo's has four Los Angeles stores - the one on Sepulveda in Culver City was most convenient for our tour.  In addition to paletas, you can buy Mateo's hand-dipped ice cream in flavors like rum raisin, rompopo, and leche quemada, or smoked milk.

Tamarindo paleta from Mateo's
There are two types of paleta - paletas de agua, made simply with fruit, juice, sugar and water; and paletas de leche, with a cream or milk base. My choice, tamarindo, was an intense blast of the puckery fruit, melting off the stick in the hot parking lot, while [The Man I Love]'s vanilla was smooth, creamy, and studded with bits of dried apricots, nuts and raisins, and streaked with caramel.

Vanilla with fruit, Mateo's
The proprietor kindly lifted the front of the glass case so I could take a photo of the nicely arrayed paletas. Here, they were sold directly to buyers, without plastic wrappers. Because of that, we only bought what we could eat.

Then we checked our GPS and map, and left the Westside - taking Slauson straight across town to South Central Los Angeles.

Cascada Refrescantes is in a Central Avenue strip mall just a block away from the landmark Dunbar Hotel, the heart of the historic African-American community in Los Angeles. It's a small place, with a long tiled counter, and little else but freezer cases. Kids hung out in the shady entry, enjoying cool sweet treats.

The paletas at Cascada were wrapped in clear plastic, and piled somewhat haphazardly in two freezer cases. The young woman behind the counter answered our questions, naming each variety, and pointing out which ones were popular. We chose six; one to eat and five for the cooler.

Cucumber chile, mango, strawberry-pineapple, bionico, strawberry and cream, and coconut with chocolate.
The artistry of Cascada's paletas is amazing - a slice of mango frozen into a pop, or a slice of cucumber, a fat strawberry, or slice of lime at the base of the stick. You can tell someone really cares about the way these look and taste.

Here, our bionico pop boasts a chunk of cantaloupe, shaped like a heart, at the base. "Maybe you should eat this one," said the woman, "it's just been made and still a little soft."

Bionico was like having breakfast on a stick - creamy, with nuts, granola, raisins, chunks of strawberries, shredded coconut. We sat in the car and shared it, bite by bite.

Our weekend took us to two other paleterias, but I'll save those reports for Part Two. Meanwhile, here are some photos of Cascada Refrescante's frozen treats:

My Sunday morning breakfast, strawberry and pineapple. Big chunks of fruit, and very refreshing.

Cucumber with chile. I haven't tasted this one yet, but maybe for lunch. Come back for Part Two!


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Strawberry and pineapple looks great. This is photojournalism at its finest...

Anonymous said...

These were so much fun to read! And they made me crave one - in Italian we call them ghiaccioli

smalltownme said...

You are really taking one for the team here. How was the cucumber chili? Throw a little lime (and gin) in there and I would be a happy camper.

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

These posts are giving me some great ideas. My sister gave me a paletas recipe book and the molds for Christmas. Now that it's 90 here, I'm not sure what they heck I am waiting for. Paletas this weekend!