Martin Ortega’s favorite luchador was always El Santo. Dressed all in silver, the famous Mexican wrestler became a symbol of justice in Mexican popular culture in the 1950s and ’60s and was buried with his mask 1984.
“When [we] were kids, all of us wanted to be superheroes,” says Ortega, translated by his daughter, Kimberly. “If a Hispanic person thinks about a superhero, they think about a luchador.”
The iconic silver mask sits on a shelf with more than a dozen other masks for sale in the Lucha Libre ice cream shop in Greensboro.
“You have no idea how many Americans come in just to buy the masks,” Ortega says.
Ortega’s ice cream shop off West Market Street in the FantaCity shopping center is a slice of Mexican culture blended with bits of Spanish and Columbian products. Here, it’s not just about the sweets. Ortega says he’s creating a kind of wonderland experience for those who walk through the doors.
“First it’s our sweet experience but then it’s our themed walls,” Ortega says.
Ortega immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s and opened what he says was one of the first Hispanic businesses in the city — a grocery store and restaurant called Barrio Latino on East Market Street that closed in 2005. Now, the family man operates an advertising agency which serves as his main job. Lucha Libre, which opened about a month ago, is owned by his son, Chris, and co-run by his daughter Kimberly. He says he opened the business to give his kids a better life.
On the back wall of the shop, a group of six mini luchadors, drawn in cartoon style, stand in a square ring, each wearing a different mask and outfit. The characters represent each of Ortega’s kids. On a nearby wall, a large image of a half-completed luchador floats on a purple background, beckoning customers to take a picture with him. Ortega encourages customers to snap photos in front of the backdrops and have a little fun, masked or not.
“People can take a picture along the wall like luchadors take pictures after matches,” he says.
Behind the counter, an assortment of delectable ice creams and popsicles — or paletas — fill the tubs and line the glass case with flavors such as coconut, cookies and cream, strawberry and mango. Fresh fried churros, mangonadas and esquite make appearances on the menu as well. Everything in the shop comes from Ortega’s love of food.
“These are things I ate mostly in my teenage years or when I was a child,” Ortega says. “I mean, who hasn’t eaten a churro? Who hasn’t eaten ice cream?”
Ortega’s favorite product and one of the most popular the shop has to offer is the mangonada, a kind of ice cream sundae that starts with a base of pure, blended mango. No added ingredients like dairy. Just a bit of water and sugar to make sure the ice cream stays together.
A single paleta gets shoved in next to the bright orange scoops in a clear plastic cup so each layer of sauce and sweet can be inspected from all angles. Then, cubes of chewy, salty pieces of tamarind and a heap of chopped mango joins the concoction and gets finished off with a drizzle of chamoy sauce and dried chili powder.
The end result is a marriage of sweet and spicy, salt and tang.
“For us, it’s like candy,” says Chris.
For those who want to start small, there’s the DIY option of ice cream with toppings or paletas with a drizzled sauce. Customers can also add “adrenaline” — what look like little plastic syringes filled with caramel or Nutella or chocolate — to their ice cream to give it a “boost.”
“It’s like from Popeye,” says Ortega. “The kids eat the ice cream but if you put the adrenaline, you can be stronger or bigger.”
Ortega says he wanted to create a shop that helps customers let loose as soon as they walk through the doors.
“Americans work a lot,” he says as he watches a group of kids pose in front of the floating luchador. “The stress is very big. We want you to come here and forget it once you walk in and we ask you, ‘How are you doing?’ We want to create a connection. Here, the saying ‘Mi casa es tu casa,’ happens. When you come here, we want you to feel like family.”