Back on the 13th (713 for life), I turned 34. It's not a milestone year by any measure, and I'm not one for such frippery as "birthday months." Still, my family wanted to celebrate. They insisted on marking the occasion with dessert, as is tradition, leaving the details up to me. I'm not much really a cake guy. I prefer something a bit simpler, cleaner, more refreshing. Especially on a hot summer day, few things fit the bill like a good popsicle.
Steel City Pops hails from Alabama, bringing gourmet paleta-style popsicles to the Heights in a rather roundabout fashion. While I'm used to buying my pops out of a three-wheeled cooler-cart, the gentleman peddling it gently tooting a bike horn to entice customers out for a snack, Steel City Pops is a decidedly modern storefront. Occupying a surprisingly large space on 20th between Heights and Studewood, the popstand comprises three sections, all decked out in cool concrete and white tile. Sunlight floods in through the plate glass that lines the front, and fresh-faced youngsters fish your chosen pop from coolers set into the counters.
To the right, crews fill steel molds with fruity concoctions, preparing the next batch of pops. To the left, an odd open space ringed with benches provides a bit of seating, in case you'd like to enjoy your pop on site. While it might seem odd to use the equivalent of a moderately sized restaurant dining room for nothing more than a few benches and a whole lot of exposed concrete in the center, the space is perfect for a couple of pop-spazzed kids to dance along to the soundtrack of mid-’90s boy bands. I had no idea how much my youngest likes NSYNC. I assume the shop has something in store for that space, either additional seating or as an event venue of some sort. Popsicle Parties may be the IT birthday for the elementary crowd this coming school year. You heard it here first.
Front and center, a couple of monitors display the day's flavors. One side boasts fruity options, the other creamy, with a few "cookie pops" noted as well. We ordered a couple of each from the fruity and creamy collections. Both sections of the menu do a good job of finding balance between straightforward crowd-pleasers and more interesting, inventive options, with a good nod to regional flavors and ideas. Flavors like Sweet Tea, Pineapple Jalapeño and Hibiscus are well-tuned fruity options for the Houston temperament. The creamy side stays a little closer to mainstream, with flavors like Coffee, Caramel and Coconut dominating. Creamy nods to Texas and the South come via Buttermilk and Avocado options.
The pops are all simple and straightforward in their ingredients, containing nothing more than fruit juices, organic cane sugar and water for the fruity varieties, repeating that format of simplicity on the creamy side but with the inclusion of dairy (excepting the avocado pop, which gets its texture from the creamy green stuff itself).
That focus on flavor means pops that aren't overly sweet and that taste like what they say they are. The fruity versions all include an acidic ingredient like lemon or lime juice, helping to keep them refreshing instead of cloying. From that side of the menu, the watermelon pop my daughter picked was the clear winner. It was light and bright and bursting with melon flavor, like frozen agua fresca. My wife opted for a cantaloupe pop, which had me excited. One of my favorite readily available summertime (let's get real — anytime) treats is an ice cold cantaloupe juice from Taqueria El Rey, and I was hoping that this would be that, but in popsicle form. It tasted fine, but was marred by too much pulp, making it distracting to eat.
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On the creamy side, my youngest girl chose caramel, surprising exactly nobody. Her pop was delicious. The caramel flavor was deep and complex, with a delightfully creamy consistency. Its only flaw was that I don't want the rich, saturated flavor of caramel when my shoes are melting to the sidewalk. For my money, the day's showstopper was my avocado pop. The girl at the counter billed it as delicious, well balanced between lime and avocado, and she was dead-on. It hit first with bright, tart citrus. Then, creamy and verdant avocado came rushing in, vegetal but not to the point of distraction. It was rich and mouth-filling, but in a way that managed to be light and refreshing. The serious punch of lime went a long way, in that regard.
Steel City isn't going to keep me from chasing down the dude on the trike slinging chicharrones, but it's nice to have a storefront with a/c and a wide variety of options, rotating seasonally and well-tuned for our climate and predilections. I still want to try that sweet tea pop, and I'm curious what options Steel City will have as the weather stops trying to kill us come
September October (dear God, when will it cool off?). If the current selection is any indication, you'll want to swing by and find out.