This certainly isn’t a newsflash, but all Mexican food is not created equal. I mean, of course the Chevy’s I’ve occasionally resorted it is an inevitable disappointment, but even what passes for reasonably respectable Mexican food in a lot of places can be pretty horrific. Boston, in my experience, has terrible Mexican food. I spent four years there essentially twitching in desperation for something resembling a decent taco. In our freshman year, Stephen and I went to a restaurant that came very highly recommended. They actually managed to make a quesadilla nearly inedible. We went back one other time, hoping we’d just been on a bad day, but the food did not improve.
The problem, of course, is that cities without many visible Mexican people rarely have excellent Mexican food. Forty years after the race riots in Roxbury, Boston is still a surprisingly white city. In addition to the problematic social and cultural implications, this means the odds of getting decent guacamole are pretty slim.
The Nashville of my earliest years was a similar city. Back in the years before salsa was the best-selling condiment in America, my understanding of Mexican cuisine went no farther than Chi-Chi’s, and it went there infrequently. When my mother was pregnant with me, a friend of hers was the manager of a Chi-Chi’s, and he treated her to an all-she-could-eat pseudo-Mexican feast. The hours she later spent throwing up put her off the idea for some time.
Over time, that aspect of Nashville’s culinary landscape broadened. Slowly at first, immigrants arrived, and the food in the Music City changed for the better. I know a lot of people there who have some militantly angry feelings about immigration in general. Many of them are the same people who have forgotten a time when they didn’t even know what cilantro was, let alone whether or not they thought it tasted like soap. I, for one, am nothing but enthusiastic about this recent cultural shift.
These days in Nashville, if you know where to look, you can find excellent fresh tortillas, goat meat cooked slowly in a dark, mole-style sauce, and the best addition the your survive the humidity repertoire since the mojito. I refer, of course, to Las Paletas.
Las Paletas, the store, is located on a stretch of road that not so long ago was best described by the term skeezy. Now it boasts a coffee shop called the Frothy Monkey, a wine bar, a cheese shop, and the pink Art Deco building that houses a frozen treat paradise. Las paletas, the popsicle of the gods, are made from fresh, ripe fruits pureed with just a little sugar and very little else.
The store is owned by two sisters from Guadalajara, Irma and Norma Paz. They serve traditional flavors like hibiscus, prickly pear, and tamarind, but also take excellent advantage of seasonal fruits and unusual tastes. They are justifiably well known for the daring cucumber and chili; the mango, berry, melon, avocado, and pineapple always knock my socks off. Stephen is partial to the ice cream-based flavors and always gets the chocolate raspberry when it’s available.
My first paleta was mango, and by my second bite, I was struck by the delightful way the fruit’s texture survived the pureeing and freezing. The fruit seems more crushed than buzzed smooth, retaining toothsome little chunks and its original texture. My first paleta had that silky-slimy mango mouthfeel, and every one since has been equally exciting. On my recent trip I had a plum paleta for the first time, and it may be my very favorite ever. Liberally flecked with bits chewy purple skin, its sweet/tart balance was possibly the truest plum experience of my life.
So if you’re in Nashville and it’s hot outside, or heck, even if it snows, I highly recommend Las Paletas. For a city so recently introduced to the joys of real Mexican cuisine, these popsicles are as refreshing, as authentic, and as simply delightful as you’re likely to find anywhere. I highly recommend you bring a cooler; I promise, you’ll want more for later.
2907 12th AVE S
Nashville, TN 37204