Edit ModuleShow Tags

Paletas to the people

La Tropical is a summertime institution

La Tropical’s mango con chili features chunks of fresh mango and a confetti of chili.

Greg Bollinger

In search of a warm-weather treat off the beaten path? Look no further than La Tropical.

With its flagship store in East Tulsa and a new one in Broken Arrow, this summertime institution will not only get you out of the midtown/downtown bubble, but also provide an immersive, richly cultural experience. In particular, La Tropical showcases Mexico’s mastery of paletas, or freezer pops, conjuring the image of the old, hunchbacked paletero with his tiny pushcart.

Inside La Tropical’s cheerful, bright green and orange interior, you’ll find about 35 Mexican ice pop flavors and 30 ice cream flavors—all family recipes. The sheer sight of their kaleidoscopic freezer case will have you humming “De Colores.”

Run by owner Yesenia Marín and three generations of her family, La Tropical is more than a paletería or nevería. It’s also a snack shop, serving sweet and savory treats such as fresas con crema (fresh strawberries and a cream made with condensed milk and sour cream) and elotes (corn on the cob with butter, mayonnaise and chili powder).

There is a full spectrum of options. The less adventurous might opt for milkshakes or nachos (but … why?) whereas daredevils might select locos—a bag of chips such as Cheetos or Doritos filled with shredded cabbage, roma tomato, chicharrones (pork rinds), sour cream, cheese and hot sauce. A popular Mexican street food, locos take the name for whatever brand you select. Dori loco, for example, would be “crazy Doritos,” or a bag of chips dialed all the way up.

Marín recommends the chips. “I absolutely love the Mix, which is the chips with the fruit and chamoy and tajín, and the peanuts, and, oh, that’s my favorite!”

Chamoy and tajín are, respectively, a Mexican sauce and seasoning that puts American condiments to shame. Chamoy, a liquid blend of chili, lime and a fruit such as plum or apricot, enhances fruit to taste at once sweet, salty, sour and spicy. Tajín, a spice blend of chili, lime and salt, is often sprinkled on fruits and veggies. This powder will hook you; as a kid, I would eat a candy version of this—basically tajín mixed with sugar—by sprinkling it on my hand and raising that hand up to my mouth, all in a fluid motion. Nowadays, my husband and I love tajín on watermelon.

It’s also fantastic with mangoes, as regulars at La Tropical will attest. The top seller is the mangonada, Marín’s muse. Chunks of fresh mango are married with lime juice, generous squirts of chamoy, and swirls of tajín. It’s served with a fun straw wrapped in spicy-sweet seasoned tamarind. Prior to opening the first store in 2015, Marín would crave mangonadas from her upbringing in Chicago. “That was the big thing,” Marín said. “It was a big hit.”

Though we love the mangonada’s flavor combo, the biggest hit for my family and me are the paletas, or freezer pops. We get them on weekend afternoons when our sweet tooth wants something amplified, zingier, fresher.

Each pop is homemade. “The commercialized ones are basically water and flavor,” Marín said. Hers have natural fruit.

Though we usually get different paletas each time, two of our favorites are:

Mango con chile

This paleta de agua, or water-based pop, is positively refrescante. It features huge chunks of fruit—to the extent that some bites are pure mango—and is speckled with a confetti of chili. Don’t miss this one, as it’s typically sold out on busy days.

Arroz con leche

Creamy and rich, like your abuela’s rice pudding. Marín hopes her many Latinx customers will recall their childhood when eating it. Featuring soft grains of sweet rice, cinnamon throughout, and a couple of raisins here and there, it hits the spot when you want something more substantial.

Marín and her husband have combined ingredients from the two bordering coastal states in Mexico where their families are from. Her parents are from Guerrero, and her husband was born in Michoacán, coming to the U.S. as a teenager. Paletas, then, are in their blood; in Michoacán, the treat is so popular that the city of Tocumbo erected a giant statue of one.

The duo takes pride in concocting each of the recipes, to such a degree that Marín takes one for the team when it’s time to devise a new flavor. “Believe it or not, I’m lactose intolerant,” she said.

It’s evident that the community appreciates Marín’s dedication. Swing by on a summer Sunday afternoon and you may have to wait in line just to take a ticket. “That’s where my family comes in, because everyone wants the store to thrive,” Marín said.

Nevería y Paletería​ La Tropical
Open every day 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
3151 S. 129th E. Ave., Tulsa
1181 S. Aspen Ave., Broken Arrow