There’s a poetic sense of harmony in enjoying a Pocho Pops paleta at a farmers market, where you’re surrounded by displays of the same fresh fruits that you can taste in these refreshingly artisanal Mexican ice pops.
Popsicle enthusiasts often don’t know what paletas are before they visit Pocho Pops and recognize the frozen treats on a stick. They’re then surprised to find them lacking the standard electric hues of color. Instead, the muted colors of Pocho Pops match the real fruits and ingredients from which they’re made.
“I don’t use artificial or natural coloring, and at first it baffles people,” explained owner Ismael Venegas. “Mexican paletas try to stay as close to natural as possible. The most common colors in nature are red and yellow, so most of the paletas I have are red or yellow.”
Case in point: don’t expect a neon green ice pop when you ask for a lime paleta. Limes may be green on the outside, but the juice inside is yellow—and so is Pocho’s Lime paleta. Yet what it lacks in greenness, it makes up for in zesty tartness. Likewise, the Strawberry paleta is a rich red bar that yields ripe blended berry pulp as it melts in your mouth.
Inside a classic compact freezer cart outfitted with ringing brass bells, the jumble of Pocho Pops paletas range from a purplish Cherry Lemonade, to an orange-yellow Mango, to a creamy ivory Horchata. And though each ice pop is dense with natural ingredients, its texture is smooth enough to sink your teeth into.
The purity of flavors and ingredients is a main draw for Pocho Pops customers who appreciate less sugary frozen treats. Ismael makes paletas in small batches, using a heavy proportion of fresh fruits and juices, often mixed with the sweetness of honey and agave.
“I reduce the sugar and add agave because it’s sweeter than sugar, but there’s less volume. So it allows me to get away with a higher fruit ratio,” he described.
Fruit flavors often rotate depending on demand and seasonality, but typically include Strawberry, Lime, Mango, Pineapple, Passion Fruit, and Watermelon. “I call it a back-to-basics approach. I don’t do a lot of flavor combinations, at least not yet. I pick one flavor and concentrate on the quality of the ingredients and then move on from that,” he said.
For his creamy paletas, Ismael uses an organic ice cream base from the California-based Strauss Family Creamery that’s free of hormones, preservatives, and stabilizers. The ice cream base has a denser fat content that adds rich smoothness and substance to bars with or without fruit, including the Strawberries & Cream, Horchata, and a few seasonal paletas such as the Avocado Mint Cream.
“When you’re making dairy pops, you want some fat in it, because that’s where you’re going to get your flavor from and that’s where you get your texture as well,” Ismael said.
Unlike most commercial ice pops, Pocho Pops avoids the stabilizers often used to keep ingredients evenly dispersed throughout frozen bars. To Ismael, paletas without this additive are not only easier on the stomach, but they allow ingredients to settle a bit, so that the taste experience changes as you go. “With the way it freezes, you get different layers of flavors as you eat into it. And you’re probably going to want another one,” he said.
For each paleta flavor, Ismael develops an individual formula and recipe to balance the tastes and textures of natural ingredients that respond differently to freezing. To keep the ice pops from breaking in half or turning into hard blocks, he plays around with the ratios of solids, liquids, and sugars.
It can be even more labor intensive to make the non-fruit paleta flavors. For the Horchata, Ismael grinds down rice to make his own rice milk and brews his own cinnamon tea. With the Hibiscus Peach Tea, he wanted to capture the flavor of a traditional jamaica drink, but without the bitterness. So he brews a hibiscus tea blend that includes dried peaches, apples, berries, and sunflowers. “It has a more floral, fruity tone. It’s my favorite paleta so far,” he said.
Making the non-dairy Avocado Mint Lime combination demonstrates the importance of timing and equipment to preserve the freshness of the ingredients. Though the lime juice in the mix helps slow down oxidation to keep the avocado’s distinctive greenness, Ismael must also rush to freeze each batch quickly. This not only keeps the avocado from browning, but also keeps the pops from forming icy chunks.
“In order to get good textures out of it, you have to freeze the paletas as fast as possible. Because the slower it freezes, the larger the ice crystals get,” he explained. “I have equipment that will freeze a batch in 15 minutes.”
Pocho Pops are crafted in a commercial kitchen where Ismael can make several hundred in a day. A good portion of his time is spent prepping items each for recipe: cutting, juicing, and pureeing fruit, or brewing teas. His mixtures are poured into tightly-sealed metal molds and then dunked into a tank of fluid that remains at 15°F for a fast freeze.
The entire process of making paletas is something Ismael learned from scratch, having had no prior background in the food business. Before starting Pocho Pops two years ago, he was in public affairs, working with non-profits for a health foundation. Though he still misses the community development work, he wanted to push himself and start something on his own. One of Ismael’s inspirations was the story of Ben and Jerry’s, an ice cream company that succeeded through social entrepreneurship, responsible sourcing, and good hiring practices.
“I’ve always had an itch to start a business, but I never knew what it was,” he said. “Then I came across paletas, and I thought this is something that I understand culturally. And I felt like it was something I could wrap my head around.”
As a reminder not to take himself too seriously, Ismael chose a provocative business name with a self-deprecating sense of humor that speaks to the cultural flexibility he brings to paleta-making. “‘Pocho’ is an old Spanish word for being tainted, corrupted, impure. It’s what Mexicans call Mexican-Americans when they think they’ve acculturated too much in the American culture,” he said. “I’m recognizing who I am. I’m trying to make more flavors that are more adaptive to the California experience.”
Ismael soon plans to introduce paletas that reflect Asian food influences in Los Angeles, such as Ube Coconut Cream and Matcha Lemonade. “I figured that they’re not completely Mexican paletas, but part of it is my American Californian experience,” he added.
Ismael admits that when working 16 to 20 hour days and getting 4 hours of sleep, he sometimes questions his radical career shift. But often all the motivation he needs is feedback from a satisfied customer savoring a paleta. “To me, all of these extra steps are very important. It makes a difference,” he said. “I really enjoy when people try it and I see their reaction. I know that they’re enjoying it because of all of the extra steps I took.”
You can find Ismael and his Pocho Pops cart under a wide candy-striped umbrella at the Tuesday Torrance Farmers Market, the Thursday City Hall Farmers Market in Downtown Los Angeles, and the Friday Night Paramount Market. He also makes paletas for special orders and catered events. For updates and more information, follow Pocho Pops on Facebook and Instagram, and visit the company’s website.