A paleta is, ostensibly, an ice pop. One made in-store and by hand, using recipes guarded like family jewels, in flavors carried over from Mexican favorites: ciruela pasa (prune), grosella (currant), guanabana (soursop), guayaba (guava), jamaica (hibiscus), nuez (walnut), pepino con chile (cucumbers with chile) and tamarindo (tamarind). Yes, a paleta is an ice pop, in the same way that a square is a rectangle, which is to say it's frozen and has a stick. But "ice pop," so often comprised of frozen water and various flavored corn-syrups, doesn't quite capture the essence of paleta, its sense of color and tradition and its distinct flavor -- like that of summer in Los Angeles. Turn the page for 10 of our favorites.
10. La Michoacana:
The ciruela paleta at La Michoacana is basically what it's all about. Rich tan cream, molassesy and cool, with enormous chunks of prune littered haphazardly throughout. The pop is unpretty and unapologetic, and perhaps tastes all the more delicious because of it. We won't go so far as to say it's is worth a drive to Wilmington, because we would hesitate to drive down there for a Mark Wahlberg kissing booth. But if you happen to find yourself in the area, you'd be remiss not to stop. 711 W. Anaheim St., Los Angeles.
A charming hand-painted sign belies the utilitarian operation within Paleteria La Mexicana. It's not really a place to bring the family -- the walls are stark, there are no raspados, bionicos or licuados, certainly no corn with mayo and chile, and occasionally there isn't even an attendant. There are, however, three massive freezers brimming with row upon sweet row of Popis, La Mexicana's special brand of paleta, in flavors more colorful and numerous than any other shop on our list. $.60 for paletas de agua (water-and-juice-based pops), $.80 for paletas de leche (dairy-based pops) -- almost half the market price -- which, by our calculations, means you can fill your box with almost twice as many. 1864 Pacific Ave., Long Beach; (562) 591-4366.
Superficially, La Flor de Michoacan looks less like a paleteria than the large-ish closet of a paleteria. That said, the ratio of flavors per square foot is remarkably high. The menu is small but focused, with an emphasis on the classics: coconut, mango, pineapple, strawberry -- all of them rich with fresh juices and pulpy fruit. 2606 East Florence Ave., Huntington Park; (323) 378-0777.
Turn the page for picks 7 through 5...
With certain flavors listed at $2.50 each, Paletas y Nieves Limon boasts the most expensive pops on the list. Try the chongo, made from caramelized and spiced sweet ricotta curds. Or one of their special pops: The tamarind with chile is exceptional, as is their yogurt bar, which is jammed with hunks of apple and kiwi. Sure, there's also cookies and cream, strawberry cream, and chocolate flavored paletas, but you probably didn't leave Santa Monica for cookies and cream, did you? 6100 Atlantic Blvd., Maywood; (323) 773-8806.
Hidden on a street that is not so much a street as a shopping center whose parking lot has been given a name, La Reina de Michoacan churns out a flawless platano paleta. Blending banana and sweet cream in the most perfect proportions, the pop achieves a velvety smoothness without tasting milky. The arroz con leche, too, leans more toward rice milk than the dairy-heavy traditional version. 2649 Santa Ana St., South Gate; (323) 584-8450.
Of all the flavors at any of the three Mateo's in Los Angeles -- and there are many -- the pitaya leche quemada (scalded milk with cactus) remains the most exciting. Toasted and nutty, with a specter taste of caramel and a little fruity cactus to finish.
4929 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (310) 313-7625 and other locations.
Keep reading for number 4 on ...
4. La Michoacana:
The mango chile paleta at La Michoacana in El Monte is not a mango pop with chile -- the most ubiquitous of the Mexican paleta flavors -- but a chile pop with mango. This is an important distinction, since one is primarily sweet with flecks of spice scattered over its opaque orange surface, and the other, an almost translucent, alarming, fire engine red with hunks of sweet orange mango, and a taste that follows suit. Spicy first -- powerfully and unabashedly -- then sweet. 1924 Durfee Ave., South El Monte; (626) 444-3110.
Compared to the licuado menu, for which they're best known, the selection of the paletas at Cascada Refrescante is limited, but surprisingly strong. Each is constructed with an architect's attention line and artistry: hearts made of rosy guava paste display sweetly on the side of their sunflower yellow rompope (Mexican eggnog) pops; the deep green rind of an unpeeled cucumber slice sits just above the stick of an electric green cucumber-chile pop. Obvious pro tip: Wear neutral colors. 4312 South Central Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 233-4616.
Not to be confused with La Reina de Michoacan in South Gate, or La Flor de Michoacan in Huntington Park, or La Michoacana in Wilmington, or the other La Michoacana in El Monte. Of all the paleterias bearing the name of the Mexican state, La Reyna de Michoacana in El Monte wears it most proudly. There are close to fifty different paleta flavors here, all clean and cool. Still, you won't want to miss the tuna (cactus fruit), like a lightly salted melon, or the jamaica (hibiscus), so red it stains your lips with a tart flowery sugar. They taste like summer love. 3560 Santa Anita Ave., El Monte; (626) 444-0073.
And for our top pick...
1. Los Alpes:
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When you're ready for the big leagues, bring an ice chest and your Puntos de Partida A-game to Los Alpes in Huntington Park. You'll want to try the elote, in which cornels of corn sit suspended in sweet icy cream. And the horchata, with its plump, soft rice and cinnamon focused at the base. And the custardy mamey, made from the fruit of the mamey sapote, at first yielding and then icy inside. Also the avocado, frijole, pico de gallo, and mole. The selection of flavors can be daunting, yes, but this is why you brought the ice chest. 6410 Rugby Ave., Huntington Park; (323) 587-4246.
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