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Have an ice day

A fruitful search for frozen tropical treats turns up a fandango of flavors, from coconut and mango to tamarind and even corn.

By BRIAN ORLOFF
Published August 20, 2003

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[Times photos: Kathleen Flynn]
Haly Perez, 4, enjoys a lime paleta at La Reyna de Michoacan in Clearwater. Paletas, a kind of Mexican Popsicle, come in a variety of flavors. The most popular at La Reyna de Michoacan is pineapple with chili pepper.

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Lime paleta at La Reyna de Michoacan.
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Orlando Valverde pours a mixture of pineapple, water and sugar into a paleta mold at La Reyna de Michoacan. He will next place the mold into a paletera, a tank of saltwater kept below freezing. The process takes from 30 minutes to two hours depending on which kind of paleta is being made.
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Edgar Valverde, 3, the son of one of La Reyna de Michoacan’s owners, enjoys a strawberry and cream paleta.

Yes, there is life after Edy's, and it's local and every bit as yummy.

While chefs across the country incorporate tropical flavors into their repertoires and even the big food manufacturers offer the flavors du jour via yogurt, sorbets and teas, the real deal can be had in small shops on both sides of Tampa Bay.

From ice cream to frozen pops, a refreshing taste of the tropics can chase away the humidity blues. Plus, buying it at the source adds another whole dimension of cool.

From Havana to Tampa

"I make any kind, no matter how rare the fruit," says ice cream maker Alfredo Naranjo, who owns Snack City (2506 W Columbus Drive; 813-872-7502) in west Tampa. Snack City's menu features homemade ice cream, with flavors as typical as orange-pineapple and mango and as exotic as tamarind. Naranjo makes even richer variations, such as a husky dulce de leche, which is caramel made from condensed milk.

Not sure what you want? Naranjo, always the bon vivant, offers generously portioned free samples. Cuban himself, Naranjo says that many non-Hispanics come to indulge in his desserts, including folks from the Caribbean, Asia, India and Central America.

Naranjo's ice cream, a bargain at 85 cents for one scoop to $2.50 for a quart, is made daily with, of course, fresh fruit.

That is apparent from the first taste.

The coconut ice cream is airy and light. The fluorescent yellow mango is laced with chunks of fruit. Its taste? Pure, and not disarmingly or artificially sweet. The water-based, nondairy offerings, such as blushing pink watermelon and muted brown tamarind, are wonderfully subdued with subtle but potent flavor that lingers rather than overwhelms.

Fat-free taste of Puerto Rico

Twenty blocks north of Snack City on N Armenia Avenue, Helados Tropicales (4417 N Armenia Ave.; 813-871-1009) offers guilt-free refreshment from Latin America: the no-milk, no-fat, all-fruit helados of Puerto Rico.

Angelo Maldonado started in 1989 with the standard flavors guayaba, guanabano and tamarindo but sold his store a few years ago. Now he is in Avon Park, where he continues to make the helados wholesale.

Sarah Bokor, a former customer, bought Helados Tropicales when she showed up for her ice cream fix and found it closed. Bokor says, "I try to appeal to everybody," from Hispanics to newcomers.

She added salads, quiches, soups, smoothies and wraps but the namesake helados and ice creams remain big sellers. Bokor has 30 of Maldonado's tropical flavors, including sugar-free, plus the ice creams of Largo's Working Cow creamery.

Fresh is best

Pastry chef and dessert diva Gale Gand knows the value of using the freshest ingredients. Gand hosts Sweet Dreams on the Food Network and co-owns Tru, a highly regarded restaurant in Chicago.

You can use "mango purees and not only (make) ice creams with them, but also (do) ices, almost like granitas," she says in a cell-phone interview. She's on her way to the market to pick up - can it be? - fresh produce. "The fruits are so sweet and have a high fiber ratio that they don't get super icy, they get slightly slushy."

Gand is inspired by the va-va-va-voom of tropical flavors, marrying them with traditional tastes for desserts at Tru. "We also do an ice cream flavor that's called Tropical Vacation, and it's basically coconut and pineapple and mango - all those tropical flavors mixed into one," she says.

"We just call it Tropical Vacation because I feel like I always need one and I can't take one as a chef, so I feel like, oh, if I just have one little spoonful of Tropical Vacation ice cream, I'll feel like I'm on one."

Savory and Sweet

Cuban traditions thrive locally but a growing Mexican population in Clearwater demands that the dessert market expand, too. Maria N. Valverde and her family recognized the need, opening La Reyna de Michoacan (1915 Drew St; 727-467-0092), an ice cream and paleta shop last October.

Paletas are pulpy frozen bars (think Popsicles) that come in an array of flavors, from cantaloupe to coconut. The bars are as tasty as they are historic.

"It started in a state called Michoacan," says Valverde. "The (Mexican) state (along the Pacific coast) is well-known for its paletas and the ice cream. Every year they have a fair. So, the best ice cream makers go there and they compete."

Valverde attends Clearwater High School and runs the store with her sister-in-law. Though business is good, Valverde suspects there's a wider audience. The store's homemade ice cream specialties include corn (like a cold, corn pudding), strawberry, butterscotch and pine nut. Her family business - her father, Orlando, makes the paletas, ice creams and cold drinks fresh - has begun to expand.

"We're distributing now," she says with a smile. "We go, basically, to small Mexican grocery stores. We're trying to hit the small markets first; then, we're going to hit the big market."

In Mexico, paletas are often hawked from street carts. Valverde might sell them along the beaches someday, but for now, the cost of city permits makes it difficult to go mobile.

The paletas at La Reyna de Michoacan cost about $1.50, depending on the flavor. The most popular is pineapple with chili pepper, but mango or tamarind with chili are also good sellers.

The chili powder tempers the sweetness of the fresh pineapple, adding a bit of kick. But you still feel like you're eating dessert.

Other paletas include the sinfully creamy coconut. Pine nut, another savory alternative, is buttery and rich. And cantaloupe is like biting into a frozen melon.

Local business gone national

For years, many Mexican-Americans got their paletas from Plant City. It's home to both La Princesa, a small manufacturer that stocks cooler cases in Mexican stores around the Tampa Bay area, and La Perla, which has grown to be the biggest paletamaker in the United States.

Remigia Sanchez II and his wife, Margarita, started La Perla 13 years ago as a "little mom and pop store making them by hand and selling to push carts," says son Remigia III.

Now it's a $2-million-a-year business. Machines crank out 6,500 bars an hour in 16 flavors from pecan to pineapple chili.

The younger generation added "Gourmet Frozen Fruit" to the La Perla package seven years ago and now ships to a nationwide market. Mexican communities in Dallas and Chicago may have 20 or 25 small paletamakers, Sanchez says, but in many other areas from the Carolinas to Seattle, Florida's La Perla is the big brand.

Customers are split between Mexican stores and mainstream grocery/convenience stores that appeal to health-conscious thirsts. La Perla's watermelon bar is made of diced watermelon, water, cane sugar and natural colors and stabilizers such as red beet juice. It's so fresh you need to watch out for the occasional seed.

Today, La Perla has expanded into ice cream, too. It distributes premium Blue Bunny from Iowa, and makes its own, including Crybaby, for modern kids soured on tame tastes, and Bombaso for those homesick for authentic flavors like Mexican vanilla.

Mexican love affair

Chicago chef Rick Bayless owns Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, two critically acclaimed Mexican restaurants. Bayless flies his staff to Mexico each year to study and cook. If there is such thing as a Mexican culinary guru, Bayless is it.

"(Mexicans) love fruit with savory flavors, so if you order mango on the street, they'll peel the mango, then they'll cut it into that beautiful flower shape, put it on a stick, then they'll ask you what you want on it," Bayless says, about the mixing of the savory and the sweet. "Now, in the United States people would say "nothing, it's mango, I want to eat it like that.'

"In Mexico, people usually like to put chili power that's mixed with salt and lime. They sprinkle that all over it, so you're eating this sweet fruit that has this salty, savory, spicy condiment on it," he says.

Nothing wrong, though, with eating it plain. Especially frozen. Especially on a stick.

Times food critic Chris Sherman contributed to this story. To contact Brian Orloff, e-mail borloff@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 19, 2003, 13:10:30]

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