On the outskirts of Culver City, far from the bright, shiny brasseries on Washington Boulevard and the machinations on the Sony lot, there's a small, stunningly colored ice cream shop dishing out a fantastic selection of gelados, paletas and jugos. It's concealed, as so many of these gems are, in one of LA's ubiquitous strip malls, unremarkable save for Mateo's Ice Cream & Fruit Bars.
The ersatz SpongeBob mascot, a cheerful, baseball cap-wearing popsicle, is everywhere. Painted on the tables, the counter, the signage. He smiles, beckoning you. He wants you to consume more ice cream, and he's a remarkably persuasive pitchman (or we're desperate to rationalize our gluttony).
It doesn't hurt that Mateo's offers flavors uncommon in these here parts. Smoky leche quemada (burnt milk), passion fruit, tamarind, gaunabana and more. Mamey, a creamy Mexican fruit with a subtle flavor that's halfway between peach and pumpkin, turns into an even creamier pink ice cream with a hint of something floral. Playing with ice cream pairings among the 18 or so flavors is a fun game. (The tart passion fruit is perfect for cutting through the sweetness, and coconut works with just about anything.) Several of the flavors are made without dairy, but even the sorbets are so dense and creamy, we'd be hard pressed to pick them out in a blind taste-test.
The stunner is the coffee and chocolate ice cream, easily one of the best in the city. This is no frozen frappuccino, struggling to mask the flavor of coffee with enough sugar to turn an elephant hyperactive. This ice cream seems designed to ensure you never forget its coffee essence, and it's riddled with small hits of chocolate.
Mateo's also has juices, smoothies, sandwiches, pastries, chocolate-dipped strawberries and fresh fruit. We're suckers for a watermelon liquida, especially on a warm day. When it comes to ice cream, we'll take ours straight up or maybe, when we're in a particularly masculine mood, in a chocolate-dipped waffle cone dotted with rainbow sprinkles.
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Mateo's Ice Cream & Fruit Bars: 4929 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. (310) 313-7625