Photo by Amy TheiligIf The Orange County Register wanted to court the attention of young Latinos, they got it. Their six-part investigation last month into allegations that Mexican candy makers knowingly coat their fiery confections with toxic lead provoked murmurs of a conspiracy throughout the county's Latino community—well, at least from individuals like me who grew up on candies that worship chile, chile powder and sugar with chile.
I'm not attacking the Register's exposé at all. Their findings were well-reasoned and -documented—and frightening. But many Mexicans took the report for something like a faked moon landing. Typical of these is my mother, who claims the Register ran the series because Mexican sweets are gaining popularity among youth of all ages and taking revenue from American candy conglomerates. "Besides," mami argued, "I fed you Mexican dulces all your life, and you came out okay!"
Maybe that explains why I've subscribed to the Register since fourth grade.
But for non-Mexicans eager to rot their teeth Mexico-style without the threat of dementia, let me suggest something sweeter, safer and chillier—nieve (ice cream) and raspados (snow cones). We Mexicans are wizards at transforming fruits into wintry delights, all in the name of battling our nation's brutal heat. For a county that's supposedly so damn Mexican, though, full-fledged ice cream and raspado operations are rather limited—limited to two choices.
Start at La Nueva Reyna de Michoacán, preferably on a steaming Sunday. If you get lost in the bustle of Santa Ana's Fourth Street, just follow the ice cream drippings toward the shop, a veritable Baskin Robbins en español. Every choice available is distinctly Mexican, even such supposedly American standards as chocolate and vanilla—remember that the Aztecs were the first to cultivate both beans? Of course not. But save those for another day. Today, go for the harder-to-find flavors—sultry mango, bitter plum, luscious coconut and the fleshy aroma of guayaba (sadly a seasonal fruit, available only in fall). There are also creations explained only by the Mexican propensity to exponentially increase the pleasure of food—if one of something is good, Mexicans will have five or six, thank you. Take chongos, an ice cream native to Michoacán that mixes curdled vanilla ice cream with unholy doses of cinnamon. Lick at your own risk—just smelling the stuff qualifies as drug use in some countries.
La Nueva Reyna's ice cream is velvety, like a lover's tongue on yours—except for the wonderful chunks of fruit. For those who prefer their desserts tougher, proceed to another freezer where rectangular paletas (popsicles) lie in self-help perpendicular stacks. Whereas La Nueva Reyna flavors ice cream with sharp-tasting fruits, their paletas emphasize such juicy, light fruits as pineapple, cucumber and watermelon—the latter, in particular, is maybe three degrees from absolute zero but retains its parent plant's zing.
Carousel Bakery also sells paletas, not to mention birthday cakes, pan dulces and those candies the Register told the world to avoid. But customers cram this cramped emporium for raspados, which have a particularly warm—or, rather, cold—spot in my heart. One of my fondest childhood memories is attending baseball games between Zacatecan ranchos in Norwalk and constantly tailing a man who traversed the ballpark with a giant ice block, his mini-glacier slowly reduced to a puddle as he shaved off pebbly crystals and immersed them with a rainbow of fruit syrups. Anaheim Angels owner Arte Moreno, take note: raspados could be your Dodger Dogs.
At Carousel, unfortunately, the owners have conceded to modernity: they scoop ice shards from a machine. But Carousel redeems itself by preparing their flavors throughout the day, boiling down fruits to syrups they chill in giant jars near the cash register. Fruit remnants bob about.
"¿Cual quieres?" the young worker behind the counter will snap almost immediately upon you glancing at the ice machine. Which one do you want? Choose quickly from the 14 options because a line is no doubt forming impatiently behind you, already shouting out their orders. Don't dally—there is no wrong choice. Tamarind shocks with an intense acidic smack; a blue liquid somehow assumes a bubble gum consistency. You nearly want to jump inside the strawberry syrup container like Harpo Marx's lemonade-stand dip in Duck Soup.
The fun part comes after you order. Get a spoon and begin smashing the raspado into slush, scraping off pieces as warranted. By now, the raspado should assume the simultaneous properties of sugar and water. Take a sip; refresh your senses. If you're head gets dizzy, don't call the Register with stories of contamination—this is brain freeze, and it's common in all cultures.
La Nueva Reyna De Michoacán, 300 E. Fourth St. (next to the carousel), Santa Ana, (714) 835-0394; Carousel Bakery, 1509 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 778-2051. Prices at both: no more than $2 per cone, paleta or raspado. Cash only.
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