Stick With It
No food is more emblematic of summer than the popsicle.
It is cheap, delicious, and fun to eat – a weekend at the beach on a stick. When I was younger, my favorite popsicle was shaped like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s head with gumball eyes. My tastes have developed over the years, mostly due to the waning TMNT-themed merch, but also because I want more complexity and originality from my popsicles. But where in San Francisco should a frozen dessert lover go to get his fix? And how far down the path of esoteric ingredients could I go before a popsicle lost its purity?
If a decade spent in Los Angeles has taught this Massachusetts boy anything, it’s the importance of paletas. A Latin-American take on the popsicle, paletas have a base of milk or fruit juice and can be sweet or savory. (The name is the diminutive of palo, roughly meaning “little stick.”) Familiar flavors like strawberry and coconut provide a gateway to wilder ones like tamarind, dill pickle, pico de gallo, and avocado. Although San Francisco is sadly lacking a storefront paleteria, most Mexican markets carry them. At Casa Lucas in the Mission, I find the pink and blue La Michoacana freezer behind a display of beautiful queso blanco. At 99 cents for each paleta, you’ll want to buy more than one. I try a creamy strawberry and a walnut. The latter is good, but the former is the clear winner, combining big chunks of fruit with a rich smoothness. It’s like Strawberry Quik in the best possible way.
Staying on the paleta kick, my next stop is the Western Addition where the rightly lauded Nopalito makes its own. At $3.50 each, the pops are as affordable and delicious as the rest of the menu. (I admit, I sneak in a quick chicharrón quesadilla, just to make the dessert really count.) On the day I visit, Nopalito offers strawberry and chocolate-cinnamon versions. The strawberry is lighter than La Michoacana’s version, but comes bursting with fresh fruit flavor. And then there’s the chocolate-cinnamon. Even though it is dairy-free, the paleta is creamy and luxurious, with a fabulous dark chocolate base. This is not a popsicle you would eat while playing Frisbee on the beach. It demands a big comfy chair and an appropriately serious soundtrack – maybe Bolero?
From Mexico I turn to Italy, which necessitates a trip to Washington Square in North Beach to visit Gelateria Naia. The much-beloved purveyor of killer Italian-style ice cream has recently begun offering Bar Gelato, its frozen treat on a stick, available now at your local Whole Foods for a mere $1.99. Gelateria Naia offers flavors featuring many familiar local ingredients, including Blue Bottle coffee, Tcho chocolate, Numi jasmine tea, and St. George Distillery’s single malt whiskey. The super-friendly staff show admirable patience as I soldier my way through multiple samples before deciding on the aforementioned coffee. (The whiskey was wonderful too, but it wasn’t 5 p.m. yet.) Naia’s coffee flavor is like drinking some fantasy ice-blended concoction that I’m sure would offend orthodox Blue Bottle zealots to no end. But for a sweet-toothed, summer-loving philistine like me? F-ing heaven.
Here’s the truth: Unless you live in the Sunset, it’s a long trip out to Polly Ann Ice Cream on Noriega Street. Here’s some more truth: Unless you hate ice cream and fun, it’s completely worth it. Polly Ann offers ice cream, soft serve, shakes, cakes and, duh, popsicles with a pan-Asian twist. It is also a legit neighborhood institution. (One Yelp review I saw begins “…Been going here since I was four years old.”) With at least 48 flavors available daily out of a possible 400 in rotation, Polly Ann’s has installed a giant wheel that you spin to find out what flavor you’ll get. There’s even a chance to land on a “free” space, which wins you your treat, gratis. C’mon big money!
Even though I am there for popsicles I try a few tastes of ice cream, including fragrant jasmine tea, spicy ginger, and the foul-smelling/sweet-tasting durian. Then I head over to the freezer, where boxes and boxes of enticing, house-made popsicles are stacked. They are available in Thai tea, lychee, mango, blueberry, green tea, and taro, to mention just a few. The Thai tea delivers the goods, from its cloudy, orange color to the familiar tooth-shattering sweetness of condensed milk-laced tea. And only $1.99 for four popsicles! You’re running out of reasons not to make this trip.
With an eye on my youthful ideal, I am keen to find at least one truck-based popsicle. Luckily, the nice folks at Twirl and Dip keep regular parking hours at two spots around San Francisco. The purple and cream-colored truck makes me hungry just looking at it, which really has to be a sign of some sort of mental disorder.
On the day I visit, there are three flavors of “fruitsicles” available, including watermelon, honey melon and lime cucumber. All come on sticks in Twirl and Dip’s signature circular shape, which almost looks like a turtle if you squint. I go with the tart, refreshing lime cucumber, which is an appealing light green. The popsicle is delicious without being too sweet, just begging to be melted down and mixed with some gin. Now this is a truly adult take on my childhood favorite.
Inspired by all my rad adventures – and hopped up on a boatload of sugar – I decide to make my own popsicles at home. Remembering the spicy, savory paletas I loved in LA, I decide to attempt a “Michelada Paleta.” (For the uninitiated, a michelada is like a Bloody Mary made with beer instead of vodka and one of my favorite summertime indulgences.) I call my brother Nick, who works as a bartender at an amazing restaurant in Boston, to get advice about ingredients and proportions. The result? Cool, but crude – just like my Raphael, my favorite Ninja Turtle.
I know I have only scraped the surface of the frozen treats that are available around San Francisco, so tell me what else to try!
You can find La Michoacan paletas at Mexican stores around San Francisco. I got mine from Casa Lucas Market in the Mission. (It also offers amazing produce and that wonderful cheese counter.) Nopalito offers paletas at lunch and dinner. Gelateria Naia’s Bar Gelato is available at Whole Foods all over Northern California. Or you can visit the store in North Beach. Polly Ann Ice Cream is in the Outer Sunset, but please remember: all spins are final. The best way to find the Twirl and Dip truck is to check out its Twitter feed .