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.)
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.)
Like many a paletero, Garcia is from Michoacán, from the village of Tocumbo, where a statue of a giant, three-story-high pink paleta greets visitors to the town; inside the giant paleta is a blue globe covered by, what else, more paletas. In Mexico, there are thousands of paleterías called La Michoacana or La Flor de Michoacana or Delicias de Tocumbo.
In the '40s, two Tocumbans established an incredibly successful paletería business in Mexico City and subsequently helped others from Michoacán open their own shops throughout Mexico, with an emphasis on making paletas on the premises.
In downtown Los Angeles, at Paletería La Michoacana (unrelated to the one in Plaza Mexico), Jorge Barragán makes paletas the way his father taught him. His father had opened a Paletería La Michoacána in Mexico in the '60s.