While standing in the checkout line at the Latino grocery store El Toro in Garner, a riot of colors from a nearby ice cream case caught my eye. I slipped out of line and slid open the lid—partially out of curiosity, partially to cool off from the sticky, sunny Saturday afternoon.
Soon, though, I was transfixed, as these were not your average ice pops. There were rectangles of soft orange cream specked with fat purple currants, whole Oreo cookies drenched in cream, and celadon-hued marvels loaded with pistachios.
"Locopops has really upped their game," I thought, picking up a blue paleta, a Mexican popsicle, flecked with chocolate slivers. But as I turned over the square-edged, cellophane-wrapped paleta, I remembered that the Durham company's pops have round tops. Could they be the same?
Intrigued, I purchased a vanilla coconut blend and marveled at how much raw coconut came frozen inside the silky mix. These definitely weren't the typical mass-produced, artificially flavored sort, and I had to have more.
All week, the mystery of these wondrous ice pops lingered, and I needed to know who made them, who put such care into them. I returned to El Toro a few days later, now buying paletas filled with hunks of fresh kiwi, entire halves of strawberry, and cubes of mango. Still, none of the employees could tell me who'd made them. Undaunted and still swooning, I returned a week later and tracked down Rudy Garcia, the manager.
"These paletas are made in Durham," he assured me.
Locopops come from Durham, too, I thought. Were these Locopops after all?
Garcia pointed to a dog-eared piece of paper taped to the case. In Spanish, it named more than a dozen flavors and, there at the bottom, solved the riddle: "La Monarca Michoacana, 2000 Avondale Drive, Durham, NC."
My eyes widened. I raced to the car, Googled the shop, and learned that La Monarca was an actual storefront, not some anonymous manufacturing warehouse—and it was open on Sunday. Before I could finish my ice pop, I was headed to Durham. As I pulled into the parking lot off Avondale Drive, I remembered that this shopping center, Durham Plaza, had once sported the likes of Kmart and Winn-Dixie. For years, some of the spots sat vacant. But with the opening of Compare Foods in 2006, several small Latino-owned businesses began to flourish.
And on this hot, humid Sunday, no place in Durham Plaza seemed busier than La Monarca. A long line of families stretched out the door and far down the sidewalk. I'd made an appointment with Diana Morales, the eighteen-year-old daughter of one of the owners, so I pressed inside. Against the cotton candy-colored walls, dazzling collages of tropical fruit, shakes, ice cream sundaes, smoothies, and ice pops hung like beacons to temptation.
It was nearly as warm inside the shop as outside, but families still crowded around small tables, speaking Spanish and laughing and sharing ice pops and cups of ... ice cream, too? I glanced at the menu posted high on the rear wall, scanned the list of forty flavors, and confirmed that, indeed, they all existed as ice cream.
I found Morales as she was ringing up a customer. Unperturbed by the growing lines, Morales led me into a cramped kitchen, where we leaned against a deep freezer. A mammoth fan kept us cool.
"Is it always this busy?" I asked.
"In the summer on the weekends, oh yes," she said. "Always."
Morales has worked at La Monarca since it opened six years ago. Her mother, Azucena Morales, and aunt, Carmen Morales, practically raised her in the busy paletería, and she's become something of an ice cream expert. La Monarca Michoacana, Morales explained, is a chain paletería, based in Michoacán, Mexico, where she was born.
Known for its consistency and fresh ingredients, La Monarca is wildly popular throughout Mexico. Every store makes its ice cream in-house according to set recipes, using fruit and ingredients sourced from local vendors. Throughout Mexico, Morales told me, the state of Michoacán is considered the nation's epicenter of ice cream. Paleterías frequently use the term "Michoacán" to imply quality, but these independently owned shops should not be confused with La Monarca.
"Sometimes, the quality of some of those other places doesn't live up to the Michoacán tradition," says Morales.
Morales' uncle learned the craft while working in one of the La Monarca stores. Several other family members worked for the chain and eventually opened new franchises in Virginia. They convinced Morales' mother and aunt that, given the Triangle's growing Latino population, a Durham franchise would succeed.
And it has: The majority of La Monarca's customers are Mexican immigrants who are familiar with the brand name and seeking a taste of home. La Monarca sells more than a thousand paletas each week, both milk-based and water-based.
The flavors range from the simple to the surprising. Do you remember eating cans of mixed fruit cocktail as a child and praying you found a magical maraschino cherry? La Monarca serves up a creamy pink paleta loaded with the sugary red berry. There's a pine nut ice pop, as well as rice pudding and mamey sapote, a native Mexican fruit that tastes of sweet potato and pumpkin.
And if you feel like you aren't getting enough fruit, try the hielo, a water-based serving of fresh fruit. The icy treats boast whole hunks of red prickly pear, grape and currant, or guanábana, a tropical fruit that tastes of pineapple and velvety coconut.
As Morales and I stood in front of the fan to keep cool, I asked her what it was like to grow up in such a busy shop, if she felt she had missed out on any of her childhood.
"Not at all," she said without hesitation. "And, now, even as young as I am, I know how to run a business."
In fact, she'll soon begin attending Wake Technical Community College to study international business.
"That works out perfectly for me," she added cryptically.
I waited, and she finally confessed that her family will open a second store in Raleigh's Tarrymore Square at the end of June.
This plot twist in the ice pop mystery—and the family's local success—thrilled me so much that I actually hugged Morales. She laughed, and I said goodbye.
I left the still-busy shop with a smile on my face, intensely satisfied to have sleuthed my way to my new favorite popsicles. Case of the unknown paletería closed.
This article appeared in print with the headline "An Adventure in Ice"