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A couple of weeks ago, I was dining at Irvine's ever-mexcellente Taleo when owner Nic Villarreal handed me something to taste. It was a thimble of chocolate ice cream from ZNOW'S ICE CREAM in Huntington Beach. "You have to try this," he insisted. "It's exactly how Mexican chocolate tastes."
I was doubtful—and then I scooped some into my mouth. What melted upon my palate was astounding. Znow's labeled its take "Aztec chocolate," a cutesy name for what's really Mexican manna: slightly bitter, gritty yet creamy, much more alluring than the oversweetened stuff Americans devour with little thought to nuance or calories. Mexicans usually prepare their chocolate as a hot drink, mole or bar, not an ice cream, but the Znow's sample Nic raved about translated its charms into a frozen state perfectly, intensely. I thanked him, bought a bowl of the stuff, and took down the place's address.
My trip didn't happen until a couple of weeks later, being it's in the most inaccessible part of Huntington Beach—down the street from Boeing, far from freeways or even Beach Boulevard. But location doesn't matter—this is your temple this summer. They combine modern touches (bumpin' music on the speakers, flat-screen television hosting ads, political posters of Jean-Paul Sartre) with a delightful old-time spin: Instead of keeping its product in sterile, fluorescent-lit freezers, the ice cream sits in buckets, surrounded by ice, held in honest-to-goodness barrels. In these barrels, you'll find not the clichés of Baskin-Robbins and other chains, but innovations, with a bent toward Mexican-inspired flavors. Dulce de leche, the Latino spin on caramel, is sweet, almost cloyingly so, devoid of swirls and served straightforwardly. Piña colada is enjoyable but expected; a better choice is the cheesecake, so rich it almost takes your breath away. On that American vein is the S'mores flavor, with enough toppings to make a Gummi Bear jealous. But my favorite Znow's offering is the mango con chile, a sub-zero take on the traditional Mexican snack of sliced mango dusted with chile powder. Instead of trying to capture this delight within the confines of a waffle cone, they just serve mango ice cream and dust it with powder, a humble admission that not everything can become iced and remain yummy. Regardless of flavors, Znow's ice cream is as smooth as a new car's paint job, with no hints of frost or crystallization.
On a blackboard are Znow's specials for the week—the time I visited, they had a roster of alcohol-mimicking flavors I mistook for actual cocktails, and thus didn't order them. It's here where you'll find the Aztec chocolate. Make like the ancients, and eat.
Znow's Ice Cream, 16479 Bolsa Chica St., Huntington Beach, (714) 840-1203; www.myspace/znows.