My first inclination when stepping inside Jose Luis Valdez’s Paleterias Tropicana in Kansas City, Kan., is to ditch my shoes and dig my toes into a sand beach.
The hip-swaying music, tropical-bright colors and intoxicating smells of fresh fruit and exotic food fool me for a brief dreamy minute. The monsoon outside is a distant memory and, except for my wet shoes and drippy umbrella, I could be in sunny Mexico.
Am I on vacation?
No, I’m on assignment. And the job at hand, well — someone has to do it.
Valdez greets me with a broad smile. He’s smartly dressed in perfectly faded jeans and a crisply tailored blazer, looking nothing like the ice cream entrepreneur I had envisioned. Valdez, who worked for chefs Rick Tramonto and Rick Bayless in Chicago, is all business, explaining how he and his wife, Lucia Fonseca, moved to Kansas City from the Windy City in 2004 to launch their concept of producing ice cream in the Michoacán style they grew up with — he in Mexico City, she in Sinaloa.
The couple tirelessly researched the popsicles and ice cream of their youth that was often hawked from street pushcarts. They visited shops selling it in Hispanic-rich U.S. cities like Houston, Los Angeles and Miami.
From Guadalajara they lugged old-fashioned ice cream machines, a crank-style churro maker and lots of recipes and set up shop in a tiny space at 830 Southwest Blvd. in Kansas City.
Since that humble beginning, lots of perseverance and some savvy maneuvering to gain awareness outside of Kansas City’s Hispanic populations, four more stores — including this one at 151 S. 18th Street, Suite N in Prescott Plaza — have opened in Shawnee, Independence and Wichita. Lines are long and reviews are enthusiastic.
Valdez works long days, constantly developing new flavors and products and is driven by his absolute passion.
As Valdez and I stand in front of a reach-in freezer packed with neon-colored ice creams his kid-in-a-candy-store persona appears. Clutching plastic sampling spoons, he slides open a glass door and starts dipping, smiling, chatting about the texture, the flavor profiles, the mouth feel.
“Here is Mexican vanilla,” Valdez hands me a generous scoop of yellow-colored ice cream. The taste is velvety, nuanced, smooth, faintly tinged with coconut.
“And this one is cotton candy. Yes? What do you think?”
What I’m thinking is that my aching 11 a.m. sweet tooth has come to life. Suddenly I can’t get enough of the frozen confection and luckily, Valdez obliges by filling up spoon after spoon in rapid-fire succession for me to taste.
Valdez’s Mexican-style ice creams come by their robust and explosive and splendid flavors honestly: fresh, high-quality ingredients, no preservatives. Lime, strawberry, chocolate, one with roasted pine nuts, one with a kick of heat at the end, tangy tequila—they all linger on my tongue before slipping down my throat.
It’s only when we reach the end of the long stretch of freezers — Paleterias Tropicana has 48 flavors, including cream- and fruit-based ones — that Valdez rescues the spoons from my hand and replaces them with apaleta.
“Cookies and cream,” he grins, holding the plastic-wrapped treat-on-a-stick as gingerly as a father holds a newborn before offering it to me. “Yes, yes, people love these. Love them!”
Valdez is in no way boastful. He’s proud and excited and pleased as punch that the authentic treat from Mexico translates well to the Heartland.
Next stop at Paleterias Tropicana is behind the scenes where employees show me how the half-eatenpaleta
I’m still holding is made, in batches that take about 20 minutes. On a typical sweltering summer day Valdez will sell 10,000 — on a winter’s day they still sell, but not as briskly. People instead gravitate to the churros and a cup of Mexican hot chocolate.
An employee demonstrates preparation of a TropiChurro, a concoction Valdez devised to sell churros even during warm weather. Fresh fruit is expertly chunked and the piping-hot churro is split down the middle and filled with the fragrant, jewel-colored mixture. Sauce is drizzled over, fresh-whipped cream is piped on top and a cherry garnishes the colorful dessert.
Valdez also sells from-scratchtortas, smoothies, fruit cocktails, sundaes, burritos and quesadillas. On our way from the kitchen back into the front of the house we pass a chef tearing fresh-poached chicken breasts for the spicy Mexican tinga.
“I know people always need to eat — and will have ice cream or something sweet afterward,” he says, arms gesturing at the dining room that’s bustling, even on this gray day. “That’s why Lucia and I developed a menu of sandwiches andtapas
Valdez instructs an employee to whip up ajugo verde
, a healthy and refreshing green juice made with parsley, celery, spinach and orange and grapefruit. He hands me the neon-colored drink, shakes my hand, fetches my umbrella and leaves me with a nugget of inspiration.
“Do what you enjoy,” says the ice cream evangelist solemnly. “And then share that. That’s a good life.”
I go off into the rain, sipping my juice, reflecting on Valdez’s philosophy, trying to shake the craving for another taste of this or that from his freezer full of frosty passion.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper's Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.