The Mexican Ice Cream of La Michoacana
- Josh Tuck
- Josh Tuck
Victor Espinoza is a tough guy not to like. With his soft spoken-manner, he has a way of making you feel like an old friend as soon as you enter his shop. He also has a quiet dignity about him and a clear love of everything ice cream. His story is like that of countless others who came to this country with a dream, and it’s heartening to see him rewarded with success for all his hard work.
Victor came to Fort Wayne about twelve years ago and opened La Michoacana, an ice cream shop (or, paleteria) on Wells Street in Fort Wayne. Over the years, he built his reputation and business on making dozens of unique Mexican ice creams and popsicles (paletas) from all-natural ingredients. Today, La Michoacana is thriving and Victor is writing another chapter in the history of the frozen treats for which his home town of Tocumbo, Mexico is so well known.
Tocumbo is located about 250 miles west of Mexico City in the tropical mountain ranges of Michoacan state. Back in the 1930s and 1940s it was just another small farming community with a stagnant economy. There is no consensus on how the ice cream revolution really started, but most people tend to credit brothers Ignacio and Luis Alcazar, and their cousin Agustin Andrade. Around 1946 they headed to Mexico City in search of work. The Alcazars and Andrade both ended up opening popsicle shops named La Michoacana. The popsicles they sold were a huge success on the hot streets of Mexico City. As more Tocumbans arrived in Mexico City, more stands and shops opened, and the people of Tocumbo became known for their ice cream.
What is most interesting is that “La Michoacana” is neither a franchise, chain, company, or even a trademark. Anyone who wants to make ice cream, and has a store, can use the name. What this means is that the entire town of Tocumbo is supported by the industry rather than a single company. It is estimated that between seventy and ninety percent of the population of Tocumbo is in the ice cream business in one way or another. Dozens of businesses specialize in everything from cream and flavor ingredients, to styrofoam cups, popsicle molds and the coolers the products are sold in. With it’s so-called “open-source” economy, Tocumbo is pulling off a feat few cities in Michoacan can claim; keeping it’s people in the local work force.
About the only ones who do leave Tocumbo are people like Victor who have dreams of opening their own stores. Victor said that since he was a native Tocumban, he was able to get everything to start his shop easily and for little cost, however anyone can buy a “franchise” for about $30,000. The Espinozas have a long history with La Michoacana and a couple of Victor’s uncles, as well as his sister, have opened locations in the United States.
Visiting the Fort Wayne La Michoacana is about as close as you can get to an actual visit to Mexico. Under the banner on the outside of the store are colorful, hand-painted signs that excitedly advertise “Burritos”, “Quesadillas”, and “Tortas”. Each time I walk up the small flight of steps and through the door, I am mentally transported back to Mexico. The minimally decorated baby blue walls with their lavender and pink stripes, seem quintessentially Mexican. The large bank of windows at the front elicit the feeling of being in a real Mexican shop that opens to the street. The effect is completed by the bare fluorescent bulbs, whirring ceiling fans, stacks of Spanish language newspapers, and the blare of a Mexican soap opera on the television.
The ice cream coolers are front and center and the one just inside the door is filled with dozens of colorful, neatly stacked popsicles, or paletas. In Spanish, paleta means “little shovel”, and the popsicles are so named because of the visual similarity. Each of the flavors is made in-house with fresh ingredients. Whether mango, kiwi, or pistachio raisin, large chunks of the primary ingredient can be seen floating in the popsicle. Victor was particularly proud of the strawberry cream flavor, wherein each paleta was capped with a wedge of real strawberry.
To the left of the paletas is the main event, the ice cream. It’s a kaleidoscope of color, each flavor having it’s own handwritten label stuck to the glass of the case housing them. Victor has about a dozen flavors on hand at any one time, and each one is an old family recipe. All together, he figures he has about one hundred ice cream recipes to choose from. They range from the familiar chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla; to more exotic flavors like, cucumber, avocado, and even a flavor made from beans.
Victor says he likes to rotate in new flavors as others are running out. They make there ice cream everyday so the choices available are constantly changing. Victor, like all Tocumbo ice cream men, prides himself on using only cream, milk, natural sugar, eggs, and real fruits, veggies, and occasionally beans, for flavor. “This is all real stuff,” he says, smiling and waving his hand over the case.
All that real stuff translates into flavors that are uniquely his, and uniquely Mexican. For example, the chocolate at La Michoacana has a rich chocolate flavor like most American chocolate ice creams, however it also has hints of cinnamon which add a new twist to an old favorite. The tequila flavor is one not found at other local ice cream parlors and it is a personal favorite of mine. Victor says he uses agave extract, but the first time I tasted it, I swore I got a buzz.
Mexican ice cream is made in a nearly identical process to the ice cream with which we are familiar. However, the ice cream at La Michoacana is creamier in texture and the flavors seem more pronounced. With your first spoonful it’s obvious this ice cream is not made down to a price with the use of cheap ingredients. It’s ice cream the way it should be.
Like all ambitious business men, Victor would like to open some more La Michoacanas, as well as help start up more franchises. A step in that direction has been tackling the problem of winter in Indiana; historically a bad six-month period to be in the ice cream business. His solution was to start selling burritos, quesadillas, tortas, and other warm Mexican favorites. “In the wintertime, I love to make tamales and hot cocoa,” Victor said.
I tried the Torta Al Pastor and, without doubt, Victor and his crew know as much about great tortas as they do about great ice cream. Between the toasted bolillo was a mound of juicy, marinated pork dotted with pineapple, and topped with avocado, tomato, and lettuce. The homemade, ancho pepper-based salsa was a fine addition to the mix, but the tomatillo and jalapeño salsa tied everything together splendidly. It was early in the afternoon, and I had said to Victor I would probably take half home. When I was finished, there was no need for a doggie bag.
Victor is proud of his accomplishments thus far, but he doesn’t strike me as being completely satisfied. I foresee many more La Michoacanas popping up in our area, with his name attached, as more and more people discover the tremendous ice creams, paletas, and sandwiches. Victor, and all the La Michoacana ice cream shops, have managed to take an often over-done dessert and return it to it’s pure roots. Simple is always better, and in this case, delicious.