Featured photo: Paletas from La Princesa and La Super Michoacána (photo by Carolyn de Berry)
I peered, amazed, into the freezer case to see hundreds of rectangular paletas organized by color and flavor, all lined up in stacks inside protective plastic bags — a patchwork rainbow quilt of ice pops, one of the most impressive displays of frozen treats I’ve ever seen.
The small parking lot outside of La Princesa was bursting with trucks, cars, parents with children in strollers, teens on their cell phones in a line snaking out of the door all waiting to escape the blazing sun outside and order their choice of paleta.
Freeze ice, freezer pop, ice Lollipop, ice lolly, icicle, ice pop, picolé, Popsicle, ice block — Whatever you call it, the paleta is the thing.
Mango, blackberry, cantaloupe, coconut, guava and cherry were arranged side by side with strawberry, vanilla and – no, that brown one isn’t chocolate, it’s tamarind. Every paleta is loaded top to bottom with fresh fruit or whole ingredients. No artificial flavoring here. I was hard pressed to decide on just one flavor, but I finally bit into a paleta de arroz and became an instant addict. The bar itself didn’t look very impressive: mottled brown with white flecks of rice and a shower of ground cinnamon in splotches across the surface. But the taste did me in: sweet and creamy with soft, plump, cooked rice grains suspended throughout the bar, it tasted like frozen rice pudding but with no pesky raisins invited to the party. I tried another. And another. Buttery, creamy and smooth mango and coconut paletas tasted just like the tropical delicacies that they are.
Though paletas may look like ordinary popsicles, this dessert packs a much larger punch.
Paletas means “little stick” or “trowel” or “little shovel,” because of the dessert’s shape: The wooden stick is the handle and the frozen bar looks like a scoop. These Mexican frozen treats are made from fresh fruits and natural ingredients such as strawberry, mango or made from rich creamy ingredients such as dulce de leche and chocolate. The right mix of these main ingredients with secondary ones such as water, milk and condensed milk among others, opens a whole new world of flavor possibilities.
At La Princesa in Winston-Salem, owner Juan Sanchez talks about how he got his start in the paletería business.
“We come from Cleveland, Ohio,” Sanchez said. “Back in the ‘80s my brothers were laid off from a steel company. So, we all got together and everyone put in a little bit of money to start.”
He and his four brothers have an aunt who had a successful paletería in Chicago. Her business was the impetus for the Sanchez brothers to become entrepreneurs. That was in 1984.
In 2001, Sanchez and his family came to North Carolina and opened up shop on Clemmonsville Road. The other brothers have La Princesa businesses in Texas, Florida and Illinois. Along with paletas, La Princesa sells fruit cocktails drizzled with tamarind-based sauce called chamoy, smoothies and savory snacks such as Dori-Locos which are Doritos topped with sauces, cheese and a variety of other toppings like spiced peanuts, duros and pickled jalapenos.
Paletas are shipped from the family’s factory in Florida every two weeks. From the 22 flavors to choose from, Sanchez said, watermelon and pineapple are his favorite while coconut is the most popular.
“The shop sees about 100 customers a day, and the pandemic has not hurt us at all,” he says. “I am glad about that.”
His wife, Eloisa Ramirez, and his son and brother-in-law help run the shop. When asked about retirement, he said he’s not ready to give it up yet.
“I think it’s about time. Not soon, but maybe in three or four years, but not yet,” he said. “I still have more to do.”
The beginning of the paleta industry in Mexico traces back to Tocumbo in the state of Michoacán in the 1940s. This is where a family paleta business, La Michoacana, flourished and spread to the rest of the country. Today, La Michoacana operates in thousands of cities and towns in North America.
Many paletarias carry the Michoacana name but are not part of the original family business. It refers to a loosely connected network of ice cream shops, typically family owned. La Michoacana to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans is to ice pops like Aspirin is referred to as a generic type of painkiller. In Greensboro, La Super Michoacana continues the paleta tradition as an ice cream parlor that offers scooped and dipped ice cream alongside sweet treats with a savory edge, like esquites, a popular Mexican snack made from sweet corn mixed with mayonnaise, crumbled cotija or queso fresco, lime juice and chili powder.
The varieties of paletas at La Super Michoacana are expansive. Sure, you can pick a standard strawberry or watermelon paleta, but they also come in flavors like pecan, spicy pineapple jalapeño and nanche: a small yellow fruit similar to a cherry. It has a tart-sweet mouthfeel with honeyed undertones, flecked with faint cherry and earthy apricot flavors. In the midst of summer, paletas offer a unique experience. Each flavor is super refreshing but has none of the artificial flavors of most standard ice pops. Thanks to the color variety, they’re instantly Instagram-worthy.
Sweating it out in the summer heat may not be so bad when you know you have a freezer full of flavorful and colorful paletas on hand.
Visit La Super Michoacana in Greensboro at 3821 W Gate City Blvd. La Princesa in Winston-Salem is located at 9 E W Clemmonsville Rd.