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Paleta quintetEXPAND
Paleta quintet
Chris Malloy

An Ode to Paletas: Frozen Portals to a Cooler, Better Summer

There are many ways to resist the summer heat, air conditioning, open-toed sandals, and reflective sunscreens in windshields, to name a few. We also have ways to more violently cut the heat – to not only battle against it, but to, in a matter of seconds, eject yourself from the Phoenician furnace and into a cooler state of mind.

These ways include jumping into pools, drinking frosty drinks, running through kids' splash pads, and licking paletas down to the stick.

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In these parts, summer is paleta season.

Paletas are Mexican ice pops. They can have a base of fruit juice or milk, are shaped in molds, and contain, when done to their potential, chunks of fruit and minimal sugar.

Whether you like frozen sweets, there's a lot to love about paletas. The first starts with that paletas often aren't too sweet. That lets bars lead with fruity, nutty, or milky flavors depending on the pop, and coaxes those flavors, made using the fresh article (pineapple, almond), toward maximum refreshment using a freezer. They are nothing like the one-note sugar clubs that your typical American ice pop clobbers you with. And they don't weigh you down as much as ice cream.

These frozen treats aren't hard to find in Phoenix. A great place for them is the neveria and palateria Realeza Michoacana on 16th Street. In a freezer with a glass case that lets you look down on an iced rainbow of bars, you can see the shop's selection.

The paletas are simple. They are bulky with the sloping shoulders that ice pops have. Clear packaging lists the ingredients on each pop, as well as the shop's name, reminding you that the frozen lot has been made here in house. Some pops show fruit rinds. Some show pith and seeds. Tufts of white frost on the slopes and edges leave no doubt that these paletas have seen a deep freeze.

Realeza Michoacana's vibrant interiorEXPAND
Realeza Michoacana's vibrant interior
Jacob Tyler Dunn

A menu also lists the dozens of flavors. It says paletas cost 80 cents a pop. On a recent visit, I was charged twice this. After coming in from the Arrakeen world outside, I would have gladly paid triple.

The five pops I tried showcase the range and beauty of paletas. The flavors were tamarind, guava, cantaloupe, rice, and pistachio. (Rice? Yes, rice!)

The three fruit flavors are milk-free.

Fruit paletas cut the heat in proportion to how potent and citrusy they are. Tamarind blitzes you like a safety coming in blindside, a lightning flash of dark tropical tang intense from the first, and building, somehow, into this concentrated flavor so rich it almost seems like peanut butter. Cantaloupe comes in lower and cooler, more like a clear country stream to tamarind's waterfall. Long cantaloupe slices add freshness and chew. Guava, too, is on the reserved side. Strips of thick green skin and seeds so hard you probably shouldn't be biting them suspend, visibly, in iced pink juice.

Of the three fruit juice pops. tamarind is the iciest and hardest. Once you've gotten close to the stick, you can see how the pop's long fingers of frost crystals project like stalactites to the pop's edges. This frostier makeup deepens refreshment. This pop is iced lightning.

The cream-based flavors don't bring that same ahhhhhhhhhhh. Pistachio was all right. Though flecked with bits of nut, the pistachio bar doesn't equal the the pop's vibrant springy green color. If you've ever had an eye-opening pistachio gelato, you will be let down by this paleta's thinness.

The rice paleta, underdog of the pack, was its best.

How to describe biting into this paleta, the fastest to soften and drip in the August heat? Chewy. Chewy in a way that frozen dessert can't be. Chewy in a way the resembles a soft, dense cookie, only cold. Chewy on more than one level – you will find whole and broken rice grains hidden inside the bar, layering in new texture, a surprisingly, pleasantly gummy chew like tapioca. You devour this paleta more with your curiosity than you do your need for coldness or flavor.

And that's saying something, because its flavor is stellar. Like a worthy horchata: Big on the lush, fragrant flavors latent in the rice, and light on sweetness. There may even be a glancing touch of cinnamon, a scintilla not nearly enough to lift your mind out of summer.

And that's where you want to be. Paletas enhance summer, and summer enhances paletas. They have the power to rout even the heat for a few bright beautiful moments – enough time for you to run your mind over electric flavors, enough time to relish simple black magic.

Realeza Michoacana. 2520 North 16th Street; 602-271-4527.
Daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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