The afternoon before their opening weekend, co-owners Paul Plascencia and his wife, Johana Álvarez, bent over the precious ingredients they’d grown up with and began to make their first batch of Mexican paletas — ice pops made of fresh natural fruits.
They molded one with cucumbers and jícama — a sweet turnip grown in Mexico. Then they sprinkled it with a spicy tajín seasoning made of lime, chili peppers and sea salt.
“When I bite it, I cried, because this is how missing home looks like,” said Álvarez, 44.
Now the community will have its own authentic Mexican sweet shop. Corazón Helado — meaning cold heart in English — opened in April on the corner of Eastern Avenue and South Bouldin Street. The shop sells handcrafted ice cream and paletas, along with baked goods. At an agua fresca (freshwater) station, customers can try flavors like hibiscus, lemon chia and strawberry basil.
Plascencia said every flavor is made with love and passion, which is why he chose a heart surrounded by flames as the company logo.
“My idea is that when someone is stressed or wants to have a pleasant moment, they can have their five minutes of happiness and leave with a peace of mind and one more smile on their face,” said Plascencia, 49.
Baltimore’s Hispanic and Latino population has been growing quickly: Between 2012 and 2018, U.S. census figures show, their numbers rose by about 20%. Many are coming from Mexico. As of 2019, 39% of Maryland’s immigrant population hailed from Latin America, with El Salvador and Mexico the top countries of origin.
The family’s roots are in Michoacán, the Mexican state famous for popularizing paletas. Across the Mexican diaspora, La Michoacana is shorthand for a network of ice cream shops, typically family-owned. The Plascencias are part of an ice cream legacy, with family recipes dating back to the 1930s.
“Half of my family own ice cream shops in Mexico City, in Yucatán, in Sinaloa, [and] Michoacán,” said the owner’s daughter, Karla Plascencia, 25. “Now, it’s our turn.”
Plascencia calls herself “an ice cream freak” who grew up helping in La Michoacana owned by her aunts and uncles. She recalls making paletas in the kitchen with her sister and parents.
“They let us experiment with the flavors, and it was like a science project,” she said.
The freshwater flavors at Corazón Helado are also nostalgic for her. Horchata — made with rice, milk, cinnamon and vanilla — reminds her of graduating from university and the celebration she had with family in Mexico City before the pandemic.
“We have known these recipes from Mexico for generations, since my great-grandmother [and] my grandfather,” said Paul Plascencia, whose favorite flavor is mango with chamoy, a savory sauce made from pickled fruit. “Since I was a child, I have been immersed in this world.”
Jesús Pérez, 29, tried the same flavor on opening day, after getting members of his community vaccinated and volunteering at a food drive. Pérez has called Baltimore home since emigrating with his family as a 5-year-old from Mexico. Pérez volunteers with CASA, an advocacy group for Latino and immigrant people in Maryland, and is a board member of Nuestras Raíces Inc. — a nonprofit that educates people on the diversity of Baltimore’s Latino community.
“We have many Latino restaurants in Highlandtown, but this is different,” said Pérez, noting that Latino markets in Baltimore sell from paleta vendors, but Corazón Helado is the first business making the ice cream and ice pops in house.“There’s a little piece of Mexico here.”
The owners are sourcing fruits like peaches and berries from local farms and ordered custom equipment from Guadalajara, Mexico, to produce flavors like coconut with chili and tequila lemon. They will add and modify the menu for flavors like guava, depending on the season and when fruits are ripe.
Experimentation is in the shop’s DNA; another menu item is Dorilocos — bags of Doritos that are cut open and topped with cucumbers, pork rinds and peanuts. The taste is crunchy, salty, sweet, sour and spicy — due to the lime juice, chili powder, and La Botanera hot sauce that the chips are topped with.
The shop’s interiorspace features Paul Plascencia’s custom art, which blends Mexican culture with Baltimore landmarks like the nearby Patterson Theater marquee. Toward the kitchen, a luchador (wrestler) is wearing the Maryland state flag as a cape. A wall near the dining tables is decorated with La Catrina, an icon of the Day of Dead, wearing her signature smile and elegant gown.
“As Mexicans, we try to be fun, to lose and break that fear of death, because for us, there is life beyond death,” Plascencia said.
In the United States, ice cream trucks drive through neighborhoods announcing their arrival with music. By contrast, in Mexico, a paletero (ice pops man) pushes a brightly colored cart or carrito paletero, ringing bells through the streets. Corazón Helado has a three-wheeled carrito paletero that props open the door of their business and will be used for vending weekly at the Baltimore Farmers’ Market & Bazaar under the Jones Falls Expressway downtown Sundays.
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On their opening day a few weeks ago, the owners felt a lot of momentum.
“I loved that [customers] dared to try new flavors,” Paul Plascencia said. “I loved the energy of the people that came who like to have fun and experiment. We had to make everything again. Over the weekend, we sold out.”
Several days after the opening weekend, Pérez returned with his mother. While eating a coconut paleta, she grew nostalgic for her hometown, San Juan Castillotla in Atlixco, Puebla, and the memory of making ice cream from scratch with neighbors.
“It reminds me of back home when I was a little girl,” Pérez’s mother said. “The beautiful thing is no se va a perder la cultura [culture will not be lost].”
Try handcrafted Mexican style ice cream at Corazón Helado, 3222 Eastern Ave., Tuesday to Sunday, noon-9 p.m.
Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her @HagiaStephia