Mexican ice cream hits the sweet spot

Irma Flores prepares yogur con fruta, made up of extra thick yogurt, strawberries, bananas, mangoes and grapes at La Michoacana. (Photo by Geoff Stellfox | The DePaulia.)
Irma Flores prepares yogur con fruta, made up of extra thick yogurt, strawberries, bananas, mangoes and grapes at La Michoacana. (Photo by Geoff Stellfox | The DePaulia.)

Karissma Barrera, 19, waited in line with her younger cousin. Without hesitation, as the waiter approached to receive her order, Barrera asked for a chocolate mandyada, a chocolate milkshake made with whole milk, bananas and chocolate Abuelita, a Mexican chocolate. Like Barrera, more people began to gather up in packs of twos and threes, patiently waiting to order from the local ice cream shop on the corner of 55th Street and California Avenue, La Michoacana.

The rear of the building is bordered by large freezers that hold the 20 different flavors of soft serve Mexican ice cream alongside an abundant amount of paletas de nieve, or popsicle. but that’s not all for which La Michoacana is famous. La Michoacana’s Michoacán style flavored yogurts, in addition to their freshly made pastries, made inside the shop are also customer favorites.

This setting is familiar to a neighborhood marked by shops selling sweet treats. Three blocks west, on the corner of 57th Street and Kedzie Avenue, La Tropicana offers the same variety of pastries and ice cream, including an array of freshly-cut fruit served with lemon and chili powder. Here young adults chat over glasses of Tropicana signature-flavored fruit water, recipes brought by generations from Guerreo, Mexico.

The trend of Mexican ice cream shops has grown on the South Side of Chicago due to the growing Mexican migration to neighborhoods such as Gage Park and Little Village. Business owners have capitalized on the home-like feeling their products give to their customers. Every scoop of ice cream has provided customers with a taste of their native home in Mexico.

Manuel Bucio, owner of Razpachos Nieveria, an ice cream shop on 56th Street and Pulaski Avenue, said close friends and relatives encouraged him to open up his own place. At his shop, Bucio’s specialty is his gazpacho, a fruit salad that is chopped up into very small pieces, mixed with freshly-squeezed lemon and hot pepper powder.

Although his shop has only been open for about six months, his gazpacho recipe is what gave him the confidence to open his own shop. In his opinion, his gazpacho is what helps him stand out from his competitors.

“I used to go to these other places and (gazpacho) wasn’t how I remember it tasting from when I would eat it in Morelia, Michoacán,” Bucio said. “I remember going there as a kid and eating the gazpacho, so I learned how to make it myself and when I would take to events, people would tell me how good it tasted and that I should consider selling it.”

Bucio said he decided to choose this particular location because in addition to living in the area, the high population of traffic and homes were appealing.

“It’s about customer service,” Bucio said. “Even though there are many nieverias, you can find five or six on this street, it’s always about adding the special touch to your store. But at the end of the day it’s all in benefit of the consumer. We at least try to provide the best customer service and quality in products to our customers.”

Barrera, a loyal customer of La Michoacán, said these neighborhood ice cream shops do more for the community than just provide good quality ice cream. Barrera grew up in the Gage Park community, but said she constantly visits her family in Little Village.

“(In) Little Village, in comparison to Gage Park, people seem more active in their community,” Barrera said. “You see people walking down the street with their families and there are a lot more family owned small businesses. It really feels like a small Mexico.”

But Barrera said since La Michoacana opened, something changed in her neighborhood.

“At La Michoacana, since it’s so close to Senka Park and all of the neighborhood schools, it’s become the social spot for the community,” she said. “It’s really transformed this community into a more sociable area.”

Chicago is one of the Top 5 Hispanic Metropolitan Areas in the country, according to the Pew Research Center, with over 1.9 million Hispanic people in the Chicago area.

According to the U.S Census Bureau, American Community Survey within Chicago’s 77 communities, the largest percentage of those who identified as Hispanic/Latino in 2009 said their specific origin was from Mexico, while making 17 of those 77 Chicago community areas predominantly Hispanic/Latino. And seven of those neighborhoods are located on the South Side of Chicago, making Gage Park the largest Hispanic community in the region.

Amayrani Nunez, 19, said that when she and her family migrated to Chicago from Mexico, the first place she was introduced to were the nieverias, which reminder her from the ones from home.

“My family is from Michoacán and to see ice cream shops like this in my neighborhood reminds me of the ones back home,” Nunez said. “I spoke very little English, so it was nice to be able to go to a place where I can order my food in Spanish and people understood me.”

The popularity of these shops has increased so much that it has transcended into the traditions of the Mexican culture in the South Side.

Aylin Nunez, 15, said that many of her friends have had catering from these ice cream shops for their quinceaneras, a typical Mexican celebration for young girls when they turn 15.

She hopes that for her sweet 16 celebration, she can order catering from her favorite ice cream shop too.