Everyone seems to want to go to Tropicana at the same time.
At least, that’s how it feels whenever I visit Paletería Tropicana on Southwest Boulevard, which, in the evening, is more often than not flush with eager patrons, with a line stretching out the door.
The congregation is varied: There are gaggles of youths with braces and crop tops; hand-holding couples in the middle of date night; weary parents with children at their knees. All are eager for their turn, for the call of “Quién sigue?”(“Who’s next?”) from one of the aproned attendants behind the counter. Each order is different, for the paletería offers endless treats in fantastical flavors: ice cream buckets filled with chicle (blue and pink bubblegum), dulce de leche, galletas con crema (cookies and cream with generous chunks of Oreos) and many more.
The ice cream here is not the freezer-burnt pint of Ben & Jerry’s you’re reserving for your next breakup: The texture is silky and light, closer to gelato, thanks in part to the traditional machinery used—a stainless-steel cylinder called a garrafa, which employs a wooden paddle to slowly churn the ice cream so less air is incorporated.
And it’s not just the ice cream flavors that draw crowds. A true paletería will also stock a menu full of natural juices, fruit salads and implausible snacks (see: dorilocos—we’ll get to those). And, of course, there will be a vast offering of the titular treat, paletas. Paletas are popsicles made either with water and fresh fruit or with heavy cream or whole milk. They come in flavors like vibrant mango con chile or creamy pale-green pistachio flecked with nuts.
Many paleterías, Tropicana included, brand themselves as serving Michoacán-style paletas and ice cream—the southwestern state is the birthplace of paletas and Mexican ice cream. Paleterías are common throughout Mexico and, increasingly, the United States. Kansas City hosts a handful of its own, each boasting extravagant creations that we were only too happy to sample. Many of the paleterías mentioned here distribute their paletas to local restaurants and mercados, but each of these shops makes its products in-house.
Daisy’s Mexican Food & Paletería
Most of Daisy’s business is take-out, but there is a small dining room with five tables in case you would like to order a feast and invite your fellow patrons to look on with envy—or shock, which is how I interpreted the expressions of my table neighbors when my bounty arrived.
The small restaurant opened in KCK’s Armourdale neighborhood in 2016, with a menu focusing primarily on tacos and burritos. Two years later, they expanded their space and added a paletería menu. In addition to twenty different ice cream offerings and the requisite paleta freezer, Daisy’s also offers fruit salads, aguas frescas and several ice cream concoctions.
Most paleterías will offer some version of a fruit salad (cóctel de frutas), where slices of seasonal fruit (typically some combination of mango, watermelon, jicama, cantaloupe, cucumber and pineapple) are dusted with a chile-lime seasoning called Tajín and drizzled with chamoy sauce. Chamoy—a spicy-sweet-sour condiment made with pickled plums or apricots—frequently makes an appearance in smoothies and ice cream flavors. At Daisy’s, ask for the rancherito loco ($10), a fruit salad served not in a cup or bowl but inside a pineapple. The pineapple’s natural sweetness is amplified by the punchy Tajín and chamoy. Once you’ve plundered your prize, slurp the remaining fruit juices through the straw wrapped in a chewy chamoy candy.
Paleterías do decadence well, and Daisy’s is no exception. As long as you aren’t committed to counting calories, order the banana split ($10). You’ll choose three ice cream flavors (at least one should be the Mexican eggnog called rompope) to be arranged between a perfectly ripe banana and topped with fresh whipped cream, chocolate sauce, cherries, sprinkles and chocolate wafers.
Multiple locations. Paleteriastropicana.com
In the sixteen years since they opened, José Luis Valdez and Lucia Fonseca have grown their mom-and-pop ice cream business into a veritable paletería empire, complete with a Roeland Park factory run by their daughter, Jennifer. At that facility, family patriarch Valdez works with his team to produce the ice cream (forty-two flavors) and paletas (forty-eight flavors) that are distributed daily to the five Tropicana locations in KC, as well as the grocery stores and restaurants that stock his products.
Fonseca works out of the KCK kitchen testing new menu items and recently introduced crepes to the menu. In winter months, her moist tamales will make their way to the metro-area shops for sale. But it is her mangoneada ($7) that is the pride of her line.Most paleterías offer a mangoneada, a spoonable slushie with sliced mangos, mango sorbet, chamoy, Tajín and lime juice. The Tropicana version adds an extra punch with Fonseca’s housemade tamarindo, a thick, pulpy sauce made from the seed pods of tropical tamarind fruit. This vibrant drink-meets-dessert and its cacophony of flavors is the thing you’ve been missing this summer.
Nevelandia’s menu is mounted on its wall, with pictures of menu items framed by Mickey Mouse outlines. It’s a quirky bit of branding that nonetheless does the trick: This is a place where your imagination can run wild. In line ahead of me, I witnessed patrons making boundless requests and modifications.
But before you start inventing, ask questions about some of Nevelandia’s listed offerings. Do not be afraid of the pepahuates ($4): The picture on the wall makes the peanuts floating in tomato juice look flat and unattractive, but the actual snack is shockingly good. A lifetime ago, I was a college kid presumably studying in Mexico City, eagerly sampling as many new food stuffs as I could find. I became enraptured by cacahuates Japoneses (“Japanese peanuts,” which are not Japanese at all), peanuts coated in wheat flour and deep-fried to develop a thick shell that packs a satisfying crunch. Pepahuates ups the ante on my beloved Japanese peanuts by tossing them in a cup with clamato (clam and tomato juice), chamoy, lime juice, diced cucumber and Tajín. The server’s description was spot on: “like a michelada with a snack inside.”
Rene and Angela Perez opened Paletería El Chavo in 2005, and since then, the Independence shop has built a loyal following. There are around twenty varieties of ice cream on hand at any time. (Look for the mamey, an earthy red fruit similar to papaya.)
Mounted television screens relay El Chavo’s other menus. There is a tidy sampling of Mexican food with an emphasis on tortas and hamburguesas, plus an expansive “crazy snacks” section (I loved the chilindrina, where pork skins, avocado slices, cotija, pico de gallo, shredded cabbage and homemade sour cream are loaded onto a deep-fried pastry square called a duro).
But it is El Chavo’s sweet stuff that tugs at my memory. The esquimales are like paletas gone wild: They are regular paletas dipped in a chocolate ganache and coated with nuts or candy. Coconut is the most popular esquimale at El Chavo, and the contrast between super-creamy coconut, dark chocolate and feathery coconut flakes was divine.
El Chavo’s limoy is my new obsession: Similar to a mangoneada, this treat finds brilliant lime sorbet packed into a Tajín-rimmed sixteen-ounce cup with thick chamoy and tamarind sauces oozing through the breaks in the scoops.
Frutopia is one of Kansas City’s youngest paleterías—it turns two in December—and it has the swagger of the cool new kid. Located in a strip mall between a thrift store and a Family Dollar, this spacious shop proffers ten flavors of agua frescas, forty different kinds of ice cream and thirty-two paletas, plus juices, smoothies, milkshakes and a hot food menu.
The sheer volume of offerings is enough to overwhelm, but fret not: The friendly staff are happy to provide ice cream samples to aid in your decision-making. Take the opportunity to try flavors like gansito (made with a Mexican strawberry-chocolate snack cake), avocado, cactus, corn, tamarind (it’s got a mild vanilla-citrus flavor) and guanabana.
Get the wonderfully textured escamocha ($5), a kind of parfait with mango and pineapple chunks layered with sweetened condensed milk, coconut flakes, raisins, pecans and whipped cream. This is also an excellent place to sample the fabulously irreverent Mexican street food snack known as dorilocos ($5).
“When you go to Mexico City, you see shops selling this everywhere,” says Sandy Knight, Frutopia’s manager. “You take the bag of Doritos or Takis and you get pieces of fruit and vegetable combined—usually cucumber, tomatoes and jicama—and pork rinds and hot peanuts on top. And, of course, you add chamoy and Tajín, and a lot of people add hot sauce to give it even more heat. When you take a bite, you find something sour with the chamoy, some spice, some refreshing vegetables, salty chips—it’s a little bit of everything in just one bag.”
Daisy’s Mexican Food & Paletería
Rancherito Loco ($10)
Banana Split ($10)
Nevelandia Ice Cream Parlor
Funnel cakes: deep-fried and topped with powdered sugar, whipped cream, strawberry and chocolate syrup for $7—add a scoop of ice cream for $2.
Paletería El Chavo
Elote en Vaso: Cheesy Mexican corn served in a cup with mayo, cotija cheese and chile. Make sure you add Hot Cheetos. ($4)