We won't pretend that fried ice cream is an authentic Mexican dessert. An exchange student friend assures us it's not. But in America, and especially in Phoenix, fried ice cream has become a staple of Mexican restaurants -- taking up precious dessert menu space alongside the more traditional flan and sopapillas.
Not that we're complaining. When done right it's delicious, and very refreshing in the summertime heat. So for this week's Battle of the Dishes we decided to get fried at two local Mexican-inspired restaurants, one a romantic hideaway and the other a party palace.
In One Corner: Salty Señorita
1860 S. Stapley Dr. in Mesa
Where better to start our Fry Quest than at Salty Señorita, where the crowd is hot and the drinks are frosty. In the daytime, the scene is relatively quiet. But at night, Salty's patio is a madhouse of margarita-swilling hipsters in tight jeans and crop tops.
The restaurant is bright and cheery, with blinding turquoise walls, sea themed tiled columns and mermaid murals.
One of the quirky highlights of Salty's is the cartoon characters populating the menu, which range from a peg-leg pirate to a blonde mermaid with a very overflowing coconut bra.
After sharing a savory meal of BBQ pork quesadilla and nachos with queso fundido and fresh guac, my dining companion and I ordered up the fried ice cream with raspberry sauce, powdered sugar and cinnamon. A grapefruit-sized ice cream ball arrived at our table. Dripping with bright red sauce and insanely large, it looked like a meatball on steroids.
"Oh my god, the crust is corn flakes!" exclaimed my friend as he bit into a spoonful of crust. "They're more soggy than crunchy, but somehow still taste good. Very sweet." Corn flakes are one of the more traditional coatings for Mexican fried ice cream, which makes sense because we already pair cereal with milk products.
The corn flakes were heavy and warm from the fryer, with a slight crispness and a dash of cinnamon that perked up the nondescript sweet flavor of the cereal. Together with the rich ice cream, it was a stellar combo. Though our server swore the ice cream was cinnamon flavored, both my friend and I tasted nothing but vanilla. It was creamy and flavorful, but kind of a letdown from the spiciness we were expecting. And the sugary raspberry sauce was just too much.
Overall, we enjoyed the dish. The only thing missing was some contrast between flavors, but then again fried ice cream is a pretty basic dish. You can't expect anyone to chance pairing fresh fruit with it to lighten the heaviness or adding a savory element to cut the sweetness -- at least not where cartoon pirates and buxom mermaids are involved.
In the Other Corner: El Zocalo Mexican Grille
28 South San Marcos Pl. in Chandler
Talk about contrasts. My next step on the Get Fried 2010 tour was El Zocalo, a cozy Mexican eatery in Chandler's historic district. The decor is an eclectic mix of modern and rustic, with exposed ductwork, rough-hewn Mexican furniture and bright Aztec paintings. The beautiful brick courtyard with its fountain and lush greenery is a popular spot for couples.
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Since I was flying solo this day, I popped over to the step-up bar area in the back overlooking the dining room and sat down to a dish of fried ice cream. The dessert arrived less than two minutes after I ordered it -- smaller than Salty Senorita's gargantuan ball, but perfectly sized for one. Fluffy ribbons of whipped cream enveloped the cold ball and there was a maraschino on top.
Yep, El Zocalo's version is purposefully served cold like a sundae. Bummer. Having ice cream served warm is part of the thrill, so I couldn't help but feel like I'd been cheated! Then I bit into the dessert.
It was sweet, but not cloying. The coating was thin and more bread-like than crispy, with a delicious toasted coconut flavor that I couldn't get enough of. There's a nice strong undertone of cinnamon that slowly fades as you dig deeper into the ice cream ball. It was an excellent summertime dessert -- sweet and nutty, but light enough that it won't weigh you down when you head back into the heat.
The Verdict: If you're going to get fried, Salty Señorita is a great choice. But if I'm looking for fried ice cream, I'll head to El Zocalo and beg them to serve it warm.