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Monday, June 29, 2009

It's about the ice

Our summer heat continues to beat down on Houston - actually it is a full bore heatwave at this point. We may be experiencing the hottest summer on record. Over at the Houston Press, John Seaborn Gray decided to review the collection of frozen fast food "treats" from such national chains as McDonald's and Jack in the Box after being forced out of air conditioned rooms - ostensibly focusing on ice cream based drinks. I'm sorry, but that is foolishness when trying to cool down from the heat; the calorie content of such items figure into heat generation and insulation far outstripping the temporary thermal decrease. Besides, these things are pretty pricey - and isn't particularly Houstonian...Houstonesque...local.

Well, not everyone has air conditioning, and I daresay some have truly learned to cope with the heat in the form of snacks. I speak of investigating the refresquerias - I guess technically translates to "refreshment stands" in Spanish. I don't see many references to refresquerias in Spain, but ample online resources pointing to them in Mexico and Puerto Rico; perhaps it is a concept born of the tropical environment.

Although refresquerias offer different foods and snacks (elotes, hot dogs, often fresh fruit cocktails with lime and chile), I went in search of the raspado (or raspa) - the Mexican snow cone. A quick stop at a truck called Refresqueria El Rancho on Harwin yielded a cup of chipped ice, and neon yellow sticky sweet artificially flavored syrup. It was terrible - so bad that I discarded it after three sips. Despite this, I must note the small group of girls sitting on the curb giggling and enjoying their raspas.

Visiting Tampico Refresqueria on N Main was entirely a different story. Although the same industrially colored, hypersweet syrups are available here, Tampico stocks a separate set of "natural" flavors. The chamoyado - a thick, reddish brown syrup of tamarind and chile, is sour, salty, and spicy - and refreshing. But definitely an acquired taste. The key difference was the ice itself: the shaved ice (raspado means scraped) was fluffy, rounded off, and quickly yields with the syrups to form a pleasurable slush. As for seating - Tampico has some ramshackle tables and chairs in a gray zone between seating and parking lot. Between the active construction on the street, and the close proximity to the unpaved parking area, cooling off in the breeze can also be an exercise in avoiding dust with your snow cone.

Over at Flamingo Chill, however, the seating is much better considered. Here, entire families come to gather inexpensive chilled treats, either sitting on the surrounding bar area, or the picnic tables, or, simply going through the drive through. The concept of a drive through refresqueria is such a fusion of cultures and technologies, I believe it could be something indigenous to the Gulf Coast.

Flamingo's raspados are shaped in tall conical structures before being covered in syrups. Here, too, the ice is shaved into fluff, and I am convinced that getting ice to this texture is key to a good raspado. Some have fanciful names - the angelito is a combination of panela syrup, condensed milk and cinnamon. Fruit cocktails here are very fresh, as they cut up the wonderfully sweet mango into manageable slivers for you, or combine them with watermelon and other available produce. It has the appeal of the sheer potential of a good cocktail bar, only healthy, family friendly, and inexpensive. On a hot summer afternoon, there are few things more welcome than that.

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