Fruits of Franchising
When the heat index goes above 106 in Houston, you can't eat a cheeseburger for lunch unless you have time for a siesta. That's why salads and smoothies are such popular fare in the sun-blasted tail end of summer.
La Paletera on Fulton is a shiny little store that offers a change of pace for light summer lunches. It specializes in fruit dishes. This remarkable franchise concept has no real equivalent in the American market. The walls are painted lime-green and a grape Kool-Aid shade of purple, and the tables are white Formica with cartoony designs.
Everywhere, there are posters and photos depicting fruit. La Paletera also serves ice cream, sandwiches and the single-stick popsicles known as paletas. The business most resembles a paletería, which is a Mexican-style popsicle stand. But the fruit is La Paletera's own innovation.
There are fruit cups and giant fruit boats loaded with chilled pineapple, cantaloupe, orange, banana, strawberry, papaya, apple and cucumber slices. If you crave one particular fruit, you can even get a whole bowl of that.
The first time I visited La Paletera, I just ate fruit. But today, my lunchmate and I decide to sample some of the rest of the menu. There is a lunch special advertised on the door -- a hot dog, a fruit cup and a drink for $3.50 -- but it's only 11 a.m., and the lady at the counter apologizes that she hasn't made any hot dogs yet.
I opt instead for that Tex-Mex triumph, the Frito pie. The lady dumps the chips into a Styrofoam bowl instead of authentically serving the whole thing in the bag. But the chili is made with whole meat chunks and no beans, and it combines brilliantly with the corn chips to produce that crispy-on-the-verge-of-getting-soggy texture so sought after by Frito pie connoisseurs.
My lunchmate, who looked disgusted when I ordered it, now wants a little taste. And after I reluctantly yield it to her, she won't give it back. "We used to get Frito pie as a school lunch," she reminisces mistily, my Styrofoam cup still in her hand.
After the chili and corn chips are all gone, we each get a fruit cup. There are variations topped with granola, yogurt and other such healthful stuff. But it's the Mexican-style fruit cups that come with lime and chile sauce on the side that really get me excited about eating fruit for lunch.
They make their own fresh lime-juice-and-chile-powder dip here and dispense it in little plastic containers. You snag a piece of fruit on the plastic fork and dip into the dark red chile sauce. Each bite is a rush of cold, juicy fruit with a hot-and-sour zing.
"Hot-and-sour is a favorite Mexican combination," Amy Salazar, the originator of La Paletera, tells me over the phone. There are two La Paleteras in Houston, one on Long Point and one on Fulton, and both are franchises of Salazar's original store, which opened in Corpus Christi in 1997.
Salazar grew up in Guadalajara, where her parents owned an ice cream and popsicle stand. Her entrepreneurial bent emerged at the age of ten, when she set up a stand outside her parents' store selling cups of fresh fruit. She also did the shopping for her parents' place.
"I've been doing this my whole life," Salazar says.
She entered the United States without a penny to her name and worked in the fields as a picker in California and as a seamstress in Corpus until she saved enough money to open the first La Paletera in Corpus in 1997.
After the first month, Salazar was about to go out of business. But then things picked up. Within six months, La Paletera was so popular that people stood in line down the block waiting to get in.
Today, there are 40 La Paletera franchises in the state of Texas, and Salazar has taken on a Houston businessman as a partner. She runs the commissary kitchen in San Antonio, where she makes the popsicles and ice creams and buys all the fruit. The franchise sales office is in Houston.
The last time I ate lunch at La Paletera, I was disappointed that I could try only one of their famous popsicles. This time, I've wisely brought along a little six-pack cooler. After lunch, I fill it up with popsicles to take back to the office. While La Paletera offers some interesting light lunches, their real claim to fame is popsicles.
When I start passing out popsicles at the Houston Press office, most of the editorial staff squints at me in confusion. I don't think many of my colleagues are in the habit of eating fruity frozen treats that don't come in margarita glasses. And neither am I, for that matter.
But La Paletera's paletas are not your average popsicles. They're made with fresh fruits and other premium ingredients and would probably stand up well in a taste test against Ben & Jerry's popsicles -- if Ben & Jerry made popsicles.
"That's the best popsicle I've ever had in my entire life," my editor remarks after eating a creamy pecan paleta. The copy editor, who wisely chose the banana flavor, coos a chorus of yums with a stick in her mouth.
I cut a little taste off the corner of each popsicle before I gave it away so I can sample as many flavors as possible. They carry between 40 and 50 flavors at La Paletera on any given day. Some are fruit- and water-based, and some are sugarless, but my favorites are made with cream.
The bright green pistachio, thick banana, chunky pecan and deep orange mango popsicles are all excellent. Some of the more unusual flavors include rice, which tastes like rice pudding and has a dusting of cinnamon on the outside; chocolate banana, which tastes like chocolate pudding with bananas in it; and cajeta de membrillo, which combines quince paste "fruit leather" with a rich caramel base. Quince has a flavor reminiscent of pears, and the tartness of the fruit contrasts sharply with the sweet frozen cream. It's a sophisticated flavor combination few people expect in a popsicle.
At a dinner party I attended in Dallas recently, the hostess served paletas for dessert. They weren't from La Paletera, but they were similar, and they were a huge hit. She told everybody we were having popsicles after the main course had been cleared away. The mere mention of popsicles conjures up the sweetest of childhood associations for most Americans, and her dinner guests were no exception. Then, when the popsicles turned out to be made of exotic tropical fruits and whole cream, the crowd went wild.
It was a great idea -- one I intend to steal soon, with a little help from La Paletera. Where else can you find a cool dessert that costs $1.35 per person and requires zero labor? And who doesn't look cute with a popsicle in their mouth?
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