Summer On A Stick
Imagine feeling parched and thirsty after spending time under the blazing sun. Now think of biting into a frozen concoction flavored with spicy pepper and tropical fruit. The resulting feeling of being completely satisfied and utterly quenched after sampling a Mexican ice pop called a paleta is something Hoosiers can enjoy thanks to Jaime Mendez, owner of Paleteria Vallarta. He has made these delicious Mexican treats available in Indianapolis and the surrounding area, driven by love of family and a desire to share part of his Mexican heritage with his Indiana home.
More Than a Popsicle
At first glance, a paleta looks like a typical popsicle, but there is a difference. Hunky chunks of fruit, or even vegetables and herbs, are held together in a small amount of frozen liquid on a wooden stick (“paleta” is Spanish for “little stick”). Not cloyingly sweet, their fresh flavors carry the day. Natural ingredients such as mango, cucumber, lime juice, tamarind and even queso frescocheese are combined.
People who experience them for the first time are often surprised.
“They are amazed how really tasty paletas are. I love to see the look on their faces when they first try one,” says Mendez with a smile.
Mendez’s personal journey is a story of coming back full circle to Mexican and family tradition, but where he now calls home: Indianapolis. The art of making paletas, he says, is “like a family tree.”
The craft originated in the town of Tocumbo in the Mexican state of Michoacan around the 1940s. Several families started making them in large quantities in facilities called paleterias. Workers sold them throughout the community from colorful pushcarts.
As time went on and families expanded, people moved out of the community and took their knowledge of producing paletas with them to other cities. Mendez’s great uncle started a paleteria in Mexico City in the mid-1950s. Truly a family endeavor, all of his aunts and uncles were involved, and at least 100 of his relatives still work there today. Mendez and his 10 siblings learned the trade from the bottom up.
Besides going to the local market and buying fresh fruit, one of his first jobs was hulling strawberries. While his friends were playing after school, he sat and removed stems from mountains of berries.
By the time he was 18, he felt he needed a change and moved to Riverside, California. There, he worked for a business that later transferred him to Indianapolis. By that time, paleterias had sprung up in major cities such as New York and Chicago, where Mexicans who knew the industry had moved to the United States.
A Moment of Inspiration
On a cold day in 2008, Mendez was walking past the Indianapolis Discount Mall, a flea market in the Eagledale area. He noticed a man sitting and eating a paleta, which had probably been distributed by a Chicago paleteria.
All of a sudden, the tastes and memories of making paletas in his family business came flooding back to him. Mendez remembers thinking, “Wait! I can make that, and make it even more delicious than that one is! And we could make ice cream too!”
Using business experience accumulated during his years of working in the U.S. along with additional research, he drafted a business plan in 2009. Wishing to continue the practice of only using fresh, natural ingredients, he was able to find suppliers in Chicago.
“Chicago is like an octopus: It has arms reaching everywhere and there is always a continuous flow of tropical produce such as pineapples and mangos coming from South America—even in the winter.”
By May 2010 Paleteria Vallarta was up and running. Today it continues to grow and provides paletas and tub ice cream to nearly 60 establishments in the Central Indiana area.
Family Ties Continue
One shop that sells Paleteria Vallarta’s frosty treats is Danny’s Mexican Ice Cream in Avon, owned by Mendez’s nephew Angel Benitez, known as Danny. He says his uncle inspired him to open his own business.
“My family got me into ice cream. My dad worked for Uncle Jaime as a delivery man, and at age 13 I started helping by sorting out the orders and riding along in the truck.” After graduating from Avon High School in 2016, Benitez did what he always wanted to do and opened an ice cream store.
Although it is not as busy in winter as in the warmer months, Benitez keeps Danny’s Mexican Ice Cream open all year long. Selling both dairy-based and sorbet-like novelties, he finds that paletas are “more popular in the summer because they are so refreshing.”
Some of the flavors offered are rice pudding, gazpacho, piña colada and coconut. His best sellers include corn, blackberry and cheese as well as strawberry cheesecake.
Mendez finds it ironic that when he was growing up in Mexico City, he wanted to leave and get away from the family paleteria.
“I love it now and I love that my family is getting involved in the business.”
He feels that he has come full circle, but shared that sometimes friends ask him why he did not just return to the family business in Mexico City.
“I have lived in Indianapolis since 1996,” he replies. “That’s more than half my life, so it is now my home. One of my sons, also named Jaime, will be graduating from Indiana University and he is interested in working in the business.”
“When I first started, I had the Hispanic population in mind. But now I realize that ice cream is something everyone loves. Why not make it available to all?” says Mendez. “I want everyone to try our products, because once they do, they’ll fall in love with them.”