La Paleteria

By Elizabeth Arnold

When I recently visited la Paleteria y Neveria la Nueva Michoacana in the budding Hispanic district west of campus, I knew it was going to be an adventure.

This hole in the wall off 25th Street and Bosque is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. In fact, my friends and I were looking for it and we still went around the block several times, squinting our eyes on the dimly lit streets for any sign of the establishment. The tucked-away shop doesn’t even have a website or phone number to call if you get lost.

At first glance, la Paleteria seemed like an ordinary mom-and-pop ice cream parlor, the fluorescent lights on the building painting pictures of waffle cones and popsicles. My growling stomach was severely disappointed when we opened the chipped wooden door and realized the enchiladas and queso I had been dreaming about all day were nowhere on the menu.

Instead, the walls of the brightly painted one-room restaurant wore handwritten signs scrawled in Spanish my four semesters in both high school and college could barely make out.

Though I clearly couldn’t speak the language, la Paleteria’s family atmosphere instantly made me feel at home. In the darkened kitchen behind the counter, a baby wailed and children played among the stacks of canned goods. Customers came and and went, familiar faces returning to a piece of their culture, their home.

Owner Lourdes Osequera, a motherly woman with a welcoming smile, patiently explained each menu item to us. When I admitted to Osequera we didn’t exactly know what we were doing, her face beamed with delight at the chance to teach us about her craft. And yes, I did bring friends along to ensure I was not the only clueless white girl on the block.

We sampled creamy mango chili ice cream and sweet pina coloda aguas frescas, just a few choices among their many tempting creations. With such intense flavor, my dining-hall accustomed taste buds felt like they had died and gone to heaven. But I wasn’t about to have ice cream for dinner, not when there was more adventure to be had.

With confident gusto, I ordered the two most authentic items they served: los duros con cueritos (pickled pork skins atop puffed wafers) and elote (corn in a cup). As it turns out, I later learned that neither of these is meant for a meal at all. They’re just “antojitos,” Mexican snacks equivalents to tater tots or cheese fries. No wonder I was still hungry when I got home.

Pickled pork skins look and taste much like calamari before it’s been fried– slimy, pungent, tough. If I hadn’t known exactly what they were, I might have liked them. But something about pork and skin going in my mouth just didn’t feel right and, sadly, I could only stomach a few bites even with the layered pico de gallo and sour cream. The avocado, though? Now that’s a los duros topping I can handle.

Corn in a cup is served in a Styrofoam to-go container. The corn is warmed, placed at the bottom of the container and piled high with mayonnaise, melted butter, and powdered cheese, then sprinkled with freshly squeezed lime juice and, if you feel like it, chile powder. A word to the wise: watch the natives eat it first. We, in our ignorance, dove straight in and stuck forkfuls of warm mayonnaise in our overly-eager mouths. If only we had seen a nearby man mix his up before we had ingested the white mystery substance.

Though the “meal” was far from my comfort zone, I could taste its heartfelt sincerity in every bite. Osequera and her husband are both from Mexico and make everything themselves. In addition to the delicacies I sampled, they serve paletas (popsicles), mangonadas (frozen mango with chile and lime), frozen chocolate-covered bananas, and nearly 18 different homemade ice cream flavors.

While the food was certainly different, la Paleteria gave me a greater appreciation for the people of this world, especially the people unlike me. I cannot wait to return to this hidden treasure, but next time, I think I’ll skip the pork skins.