On hot summer days, the line at La Original Paleteria y Neveria starts growing in the late afternoon, when kids, parents, suits — everyone, really — in the Guadalupe Washington neighborhood of San Jose is craving a cold treat to beat the heat.
Some come for trendy mangonadas glistening with taijin-sprinkled mango, others for a single scoop of creamy, homemade guava ice cream. But it is the humble paleta, an ice pop made with fresh fruit or dairy, that offers the most variety and the best price: $2.25 a pop.
“We have roughly 40 flavors, more when things like pitaya are in season,” says Andres Sepulveda, who helps run the shop that his parents, Elsa and Manuel, opened in 2014.
Like other Latino-owned paleterias, including Guanatos in the East Bay and Pepito’s Paleteria, based in San Francisco, La Original’s freezer is a rainbow of nostalgia, from classics like strawberry and coconut to more unusual flavors, like pine nut and mamey. They even make a pop from Gansita, the snack cake.
“We’re particularly proud of that one,” he says. “We blend in vanilla ice cream and cut up pieces of the cake into the mold. People tell us it reminds them of Mexico.”
Paletas reflect time and place, which is perhaps why they are showing up everywhere, from fine-dining restaurants and DoorDash menus to luxury hotels, where paleta carts are popping up poolside. And that ability to create new flavor combinations, as Mexico City-born pastry chef Fany Gerson does with Hibiscus-Raspberry Paletas, or freeze a cultural beverage — like Mariana Velasquez’s Cinnamon and Oat paletas, which take inspiration from a horchata-like drink found in Colombia — explains their timeless appeal.
After leaving a career in real estate, Oscar Salazar opened Guanatos Ice Cream 20 years ago, following in the footsteps of his grandmother, who ran paleterias in his family’s native city of Guadalajara. The recipes are the same, he says, and the fruit, organic whenever possible, is even better. In addition to premium bars, like chongos zamoranos, Mexico’s sweet cheese pudding in ice pop form, they make 16 fruit pops from pineapple and soursop to watermelon and nance, or golden cherry.
“We buy about $6,000 to $7,000 a month of fruit,” says Salazar, who owns ice cream shops in Oakley and Bay Point, and also supplies Las Montañas Markets in Concord and San Pablo.
One of his favorite things to do is guess a customer’s No. 1 flavor based on what part of Latin America they’re from. “If I detect a Peruvian accent, I know it’s going to be lucuma, that’s their vanilla,” says Salazar. “If they’re from Argentina, I hand them a dulce de leche. It makes them instantly happy.”
Nancy Rosales started Pepito’s Paletas back in 2007 out of a longing for the flavors of home — Zacatecas, Mexico — such as arroz con leche, tamarindo and caramelized sweet corn. “I was missing my culture in many ways,” Rosales says. “I wanted that experience of making paletas the way my parents did, with only fruit, water and agave.”
Today, the all-female run co-op has survived a recession and pandemic, and morphed from a San Francisco storefront to a catering company and online paleta shop. Rosales offers more than 35 paletas, from vegan offerings like Honey Kiwi to Sea Salt Mexican Abuelita Mocha. The paletas are all natural, so the lime is clear with flecks of mint, not neon green, and the kiwi pop is rich with pureed and sliced fruit.
For delivery throughout the Bay Area, she developed a biodegradable box that keeps pops chilled for eight hours. The bars cost $3 to $4 each, with a minimum order of 10. And stayed tuned: In January, Rosales is bringing back Pepito’s World Tour, a menu of paletas inspired by global flavors, like Vegan Acai (Brazil) dipped in coconut flakes and granola, Tiramisu (Italy) and Thai Iced Tea.
Mike Taylor’s Japanese and Black heritage informs some of the flavors at Bliss Pops, his Redwood City-based, online ice pop shop where you may find matcha green tea pops alongside Southern spiced sweet tea. But it was the years he spent living in Guadalajara that inspired him to start the business, which has created custom ice pops for the likes of Google and Facebook and delivers through CloudKitchens in Oakland, Hayward, San Jose and San Francisco.
“Growing up, to me, a Popsicle was pretty much colored sugar water,” Taylor says. “But seeing those paleta guys with their push carts, using dairy and natural ingredients, I was blown away and found myself eating them everyday.”
Taylor sources his ingredients through Cheetah and at Bay Area farmers markets. And Bliss Pops’ commercial kitchen features a pop-bath that is 30 Celsius degrees below zero to flash freeze the pops in small batches. But he offers a few tips for anyone who wants to make ice pops at home.
For starters, use the ripest fruit you can find. Natural sweetness is better than sugar. “You want the fruit that no longer looks pretty,” he says. “The more ripe and beat up, the better.” And use metal molds not plastic. Metal tends to freeze faster.
What about that icy layer that often coats a homemade ice pop freshly pulled from its mold?
“That’s water in the atmosphere getting incorporated,” he explains. “It also waters down flavor.”
One way to avoid that is dry ice. “Press it up against the molds,” Taylor advises. “Just be sure to handle it safely. Wear gloves.”
Another tip? Don’t be afraid to experiment with ingredients. The newest Bliss Pop flavor — Taylor comes out with a new flavor every year — is a creamy Sea Salt Caramel Coffee made with silken tofu. And it’s a total hit.
“Home delivery has shown me that paletas are not just a summer thing,” he says. “They are a year-round thing and people are really interested in vegan options.”
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