Summer is here, and what better way to celebrate than ...
What's that? It's still winter? And the first day of spring is a month away? Look, all I know is that last weekend the sprinklers were on in the children's playground, the Heights was lousy with ice cream trucks, and Hermann Park celebrated the opening day of halter top season. Are you going to believe the calendar, or are you going to believe your eyes?
Like I was saying, summer is here, and what better way to celebrate than with an icy confection featuring mangos, one of the greatest of summer fruits? I recently returned to Houston from Singapore, where mango is a staple like apples or oranges, and I got used to eating some sort of mango-flavored dessert with every meal. Here in Houston, since summer can strike at any time, to be on the safe side it's best to lay in a supply of mango ice cream bars.
For this food fight I pit one of my favorites, the Korean-made Binggrae Melona bar, against a Robb Walsh favorite that I've been meaning to try, the Victoria-based and Houston-manufactured La Paletera bar.
To the judging!
Binggrae Melona ($4.99 for a box of eight 2.7 oz. bars)
The frozen sundries of Seoul-based Binggrae rank right up there with kimchi, Park Chan-wook, Toreore Chicken, and the Wonder Girls as Korea's greatest pop-culture export. Although Binggrae's signature popsicle flavor is melon, the mango is also excellent. It's like the best creamsicle ever, if the creamy white center was mixed with the fruity exterior and the exterior was mango-flavored. When you first unwrap the package, the severely rectangular popsicle looks almost ghostly, to the point that the untutored might fear it has a touch of freezer frost. Fear not, young Skywalker: it's supposed to look that way. It's incredibly creamy, not overly sweet, and more subtly flavored than the whiz-bang popsicles that turn your tongue the color of fireworks.
According to the Binggrae website, "Since its debut in 1992, MELONA covered the domestic food market with melon wave, setting the bestselling record in the domestic 'popsicle market' with 280 million bars sold in 1994." First, why can't Madison Avenue write copy like that? Second, if Binggrae's numbers are accurate, then on average, every single person in South Korea consumed more than 6 Binggrae popsicles in 1994. Yes, they're that good. Binggrae popsicles are available at H Mart, 99 Ranch, and most of the markets in Chinatown, but be forewarned: most of those places only carry the melon flavor. If you want to have the mango, go to H Mart.
La Paletera ($1.15 for a 3.5 oz. bar)
La Paletera began as a popsicle and fruit cup stand in Corpus Christi in 1997, but in 2002 the company was purchased by Victoria-based businessman Clayton Johnson. It is now a franchise operation, with manufacturing based in Houston and stores throughout Texas. Plans are apparently afoot to expand into neighboring states, but here in Houston the chain is down to one location, on Bellaire near Chimney Rock. The location that Robb Walsh raved about in 2004 is closed. Even more disappointing, for those hoping to make Robb Walsh's top 100 list their new year's resolution, the Dulce de Leche ice cream bar ranked #69 is no longer available. Not even as a scoop of ice cream. According to the employee I spoke with yesterday, the flavor was discontinued about a year ago.
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La Paletera offers three different mango bars: one cream-based, one water-based, and one water-based with chiles. To keep the comparison apples to apples (okay, damn it, mangos to mangos), I went with the cream-based bar. It tasted surprisingly similar to the Binggrae Melona, but with a slightly more potent fruit flavor, probably because it also contained small bits of mango. A nice touch. Unfortunately, the bar also had a bit of freezer frost. I imagine that during Houston's actual summer, inventory turns over quickly enough that this isn't a problem. Still, kind of a bummer.
The Winner: Both are outstanding confections, but in light of the 50 percent premium per ounce you pay for La Paletera, I'll stick with Binggrae.
In an upcoming Food Fight, I'll be matching up reuben sandwiches. Any favorites out there?