University City

There’s a cool taste of Mexico in University City

La Michoacana Ice Cream is just six minutes from UNC Charlotte in a bare-bones strip mall on North Tryon Street, but that short drive is a journey that magically transports you to Mexico.

Especially in the late afternoons on Friday and Saturday, the pockmarked parking lot of Nations Square mall at 6301 N. Tryon St. transforms into a virtual fiesta, with La Michoacana at the center.

Families stroll past the shops, savoring the taste of La Michoacana’s traditional Mexican paletas (fruit ice pops), ice creams and other dishes.

Owner Rigoberto Fernandez and his family opened their Mexican ice cream shop only four weeks ago, and it already is so popular that the line of customers sometimes stretches out the door.

During my first visit, Fernandez was so busy making ice cream in the back that he didn’t have time to talk.

“Come back tomorrow and we will sit down, OK?” Fernandez said, arranging fresh paletas in a long glass-topped freezer. (“Paleta,” literally “trowel” or “little shovel,” is the popular name for Mexican ice pops.)

Fernandez’s son Joel, who attends Vance High, became my guide to La Michoacana’s sweet choices.

Winning the top prize against tough competition is the mangonada.

Mangonadas are hard to describe: cool, sweet, spicy, salty, icy tropical delights that combine chilled mango with tangy chamoy sauce. This kind of food experience opens new taste horizons.

Other best-sellers are based on nance, guanabana (soursop), tamarind and other tropical fruits that remind some Mexicans of home. My favorite was piñon, based on pine nuts. Move over, pistachio!

One minor caution: The motto of La Michoacana is “es natural” (“it’s natural”). That means fresh flavor but sometimes unexpected surprises, too. I discovered the hard way that a paleta of nance, a tropical fruit, contained jaw-jarring black seeds.

To satisfy your exotic sweet tooth, Joel suggests Tres Marias, an extravagant concoction in a waffle-cone bowl with three different ice creams and three toppings surrounded by strawberries.

Rodrigo, Joel’s older brother, has temporarily put aside his college program in business to help his family. He said he misses their old home in south Florida but said the University City store, the first in the Charlotte region, is off to a promising start.

Rigoberto Fernandez said he is a little concerned about North Carolina’s relatively cool winter weather, so his wife is working to create treats to keep customers happy on chilly days. Her list already includes nachos, churros (something like a Latino doughnut) and atole, a thick, sweet beverage based on corn and other ingredients, that is delicious served warm.

Charlotte’s La Michoacana is named after its parent company in Mexico, which has been called “the world’s largest ice cream company no one has ever heard of.”

From modest roots decades ago in the Mexican state of Michoacan (the store’s name means “the girl from Michoacan”), the parent company has become part of Mexican life, spreading to even the smallest towns through a franchising system. It is now expanding rapidly in the U.S.

Traditionally, families that open stores are related in some way to the company’s founders. The Fernandez tie is an unusually close one. Joel said his great-uncle was the brother of the founder.

The Fernandez family is living the latest chapter in America’s classic immigrant saga. Standing in front of square tubs of fresh, homemade ice cream, so beautiful they could be part of an art installation, Rigoberto Fernandez shrugs off praise for his ice-cream-making genius.

“It is all I know,” he shrugs, with a tired half-smile.

Though La Michoacana is the star of its strip mall, other shops there are also worth a visit.

La Michoacana’s surprising Mexican ice cream brings something new and delicious to University City.

This unique store also offers a tempting taste of change on North Tryon Street, even before construction of the Blue Line Extension light rail project has begun.