THIS WAS THE FIRST THING OUT OF MY DAUGHTER’S MOUTH AS I EXPLAINED TO HER THE ARDUOUS TASK FOR THE DAY. RILEY, MY 10 YEAR OLD, QUIRKY BALL OF ENERGY, HONESTY AND FUN, WOULD BE MY “CO-WORKER” FOR THE AFTERNOON, ALONG WITH MY WIFE AS OUR CHAPERONE, TASKED WITH THE ENVIABLE JOB OF SAMPLING FROZEN TREATS ALL OVER HOUSTON. I TRIED TO PITCH IT AS WORK, BUT SHE WASN’T BUYING IT. NEVERTHELESS, I EARNED SOME COOL POINTS WITH THIS ASSIGNMENT … PUN ABSOLUTELY INTENDED.
SO WHY THE FROZEN STUFF? Well, as the early Houston spring enveloped “winter” and then skipped straight to early summer, Houstonians have been flocking to trendy new locales boasting an array of tasty frozen remedies. From artisanal ice pops and shaved ice to traditional snow cones and chilly fruit drinks, options abound throughout the city to quench, cool and satisfy. Most visible among the brisk bunch is the influx of ice pop shops glittering the city. The summertime appeal of ice pops (as they’re properly called — “POPSICLE®” is a trademarked word that’s become a default name) is easy to understand. They’re sweet, cold, colorful, lickable and a manageably small snack that oozes sunshine and sprinklers. They recall a simpler time, before the era of artisanal-gelato shops and, during the past couple of years, fancy ice pops have outpaced those hipster favorites – cupcakes – in the race to be America’s most popular nostalgia dessert. Unlike cupcakes, today’s ice pops are a healthy sweet, usually made from organic fruit picked at the height of the season.
It’s the range of ingredients and flavors that sets contemporary ice pops apart from their mass-produced forebears. Ingredients such as cardamom, jicama and saffron are not unheard-of in artisan pops, although familiar fruits such as strawberries, peaches and raspberries are just as typical. Sometimes the familiar is paired with the unexpected, as in a mango-chile pop.
SO WHERE TO START? First on the list was STEEL CITY POPS, a hip new ice pop shop predictably located in The Heights. After visually sorting through the expansive variety of flavors on the wall, we settled on a solid gaggle of pops to sample. Riley loved the classic flavors of the Strawberry Lemonade, while my wife absolutely adored the mildly spiced and sweet Pineapple Jalapeno. We all enjoyed the sunny fruitiness of the Passion Fruit, while I slowly settled in to the sneaky addictive Elderflower pop, which Riley thought tasted like “flowery perfume.” On the creamy end we tried a familiar-tasting Cookies and Cream pop as well as the deliciously creamy, chocolaty, crunchy Banana pop dipped in milk chocolate and dredged in graham cracker. Finally, a last minute addition thanks to the recommendation of an employee, was their signature Buttermilk pop, which turned out to be the favorite of the group. Creamy, tangy and succulent, reminiscent of fantastic cheesecake. “This is AMAZING. Can I have the rest?” Riley said wishfully as she coddled her newfound frozen prize. www.steelcitypops.com
The afternoon was off to a satisfying start, but there was more frosty fruit to sample. Next up was KIC POP, a small cart offering a handful of premium pops near the entrance to The Water Works Park at Buffalo Bayou. This was actually one of six Kic Pop carts conveniently rotated around town. By the time we arrived at the park, the cart was down to two flavors: Cookies and Cream and Mango Tajin. We opted to sample something new and went with the Mango Tajin. Tajin, a Mexican seasoning comprised of chile, salt and lime, added a fantastic savory component that balanced out the sweet mango. The kiddo, skeptical at first, ended up loving the combo, but soon became distracted by the fact we were in a huge, enticing park utopia and succinctly took off to explore while I was “forced” to devour the remaining frozen goodness. www.kicpops.com
After the park, we took off on somewhat of a departure from the ice pop marathon, deciding to try out another popular spot called NU ICE & DRINKS, located a short jaunt down Westheimer from The Galleria, specializing in Nu Ice or “Ribbon Ice” as well as an assortment of other refreshing goodies. According to their site, Nu Ice takes 10 hours of preparation and “has a consistency of ice cream, the deep rich taste of gelato, and melts in your mouth like snow.” After sampling the goods, we agreed. It really was unlike anything any of us had tried before. The “Vanilla Milk,” drizzled with condensed milk, chocolate sauce and served with fresh strawberries and crumbled Oreos, was fantastic. Additionally, the “Sea Salt Caramel Ice” with almond slices, Oreos and a caramel drizzle was gooey and creamy and sweet just like the best sundae you’ve ever had. At this point in the day, we were incredibly thirsty, so we opted for a few beverages as well. Riley raved about the simple and refreshing watermelon juice. “It’s like the best, juiciest bite of watermelon filled up in a cup!” My wife thoroughly enjoyed the Pina Colada – a kid-friendly/mother-approved concoction with fresh cut up pineapple and topped with whipped cream, whereas I opted for the Paradise Tea, a refreshing and satiating beverage full of fresh pieces of fruit and chewy boba. www.nucafehouston.com
The last tour stop carried over to the next day. I overestimated the gastro capacities of my daughter and wife the day before, and might have caused permanent damage if they were allowed to eat their way through one more stop. So, alas, here I was solo, heading in a slightly different direction to TAMPICO REFRESQUERIA, also in The Heights, but seemingly miles away from the modern gentrified pockets of trendy eateries. Walk up to the window prepared to resurrect any Spanish skills you might have or be ready to point your way through the expansive menu of treats, both chilly-sweet and savory. After conducting some thorough “online comments section” research, I settled on a few items. The raspas (aka snow cones) were the perfect nostalgic blend of icy, slushy and sweet, made even more refreshing by the high noon Houston heat. The mangonadas, a first for me (but certainly not the last) was a cup overflowing with fresh-cut fruit mixed with lime juice, and topped with chili powder and Chamoy sauce, an addicting salty, spicy, sweet and sour condiment made from pickled fruit. The combination was entirely new to me, yet oddly familiar at the same time. Washed down with an ice cold Topo Chico, it was the perfect summertime snack. www.facebook.com/pages/Tampico-Refresqueria
IT WAS A GREAT WAY TO CAP OFF A MICROCOSMIC TOUR OF CHILLY H-TOWN TREATS, WITH THESE REPRESENTING JUST A FRACTION OF THE PLACES YOU CAN GO AROUND TOWN TO COOL AND REFRESH YOUR MIND, BODY AND PALATE. ONE THING IS CERTAIN: HOUSTON GETS HOT, BUT IT’S ALSO MERCIFULLY TEEMING WITH PLACES TO GO AND SOOTHE YOUR SUN-KISSED SOULS.