Friday, November 15, 2013

Helado Puertorriqueño en Heladeria Lares

The couple up front is selling lottery tickets. Resist(!) so you can buy ice cream.
"Can I try the Bacalao ice cream, please?" I asked.

"Bacalao?" Based on her tone, she was wondering if she had translated the word incorrectly for me. Why else would a person want to try it? It's not like there weren't other options and each customer was allowed a mere two samples.

But I needed to make mine count. When in Puerto Rico, right?


The girl behind the counter gave me both a taster spoon with Bacalao on it and a horrified expression. Soon a nauseating bite of ocean water clouded my sense of bewildered amusement. This was Heladeria Lares and I was eating Salted Cod ice cream.


Located about ninety minutes west of our hotel in San Juan, not far from Camuy River Cave Park and one hour from Rincón Lighthouse on Puerto Rico's west coast, the town of Lares is comprised of a steep hill. At the top is the town square, tucked amongst colorful are-they-closed-or-vacant businesses. Among them is Heladeria Lares, the most universally revered ice cream shop in Puerto Rico based on my research. Through its open entryway are eight ice cream freezers. And inside are 40-50 different flavors.
While I would've eaten it just by
treating the freezer like a trough, sadly
the front did not open for customers.

For shy eaters, they feature the standard fare one would expect to find at any purveyor of frozen dairy delicacies: vanilla with chocolate chips, chocolate, chocolate with chocolate chips, cookies and cream, strawberry cheesecake, amaretto and vanilla with caramel and chocolate. These are mostly tucked in the back though, signaling that they are not the main event.

Most abundant are the fruit flavors. Some are flavors we all know well, such as banana, strawberry and orange. Others are recognizable tropical fruits, such as pineapple, passion fruit, papaya, guava and mango. Still more are less recognizable tropical fruits, such as acerola, soursop, tamarind, sea grape, breadfruit and guama (aka ice cream fruit).

But fruit isn't the only produce represented in the flavors at Heladeria Lares. Garlic, ginger, pumpkin, sweet potato, carrot and corn ice creams are also available. For those seeking nuts and legumes, there's pistachio, peanut, almond and peanut with almonds.

Then there are other, more culturally specific flavors to excite more adventurous eaters. Some of these are inspired by traditional desserts found around the island, such as sweet plantain, coconut with cinnamon, sweet rice, dulce de leche, almond cake and sesame seed candy. Others are inspired by traditional entrées and side dishes, including rice and beans, pumpkin soup, arroz con gandules and fried and salted cod. (With crazy flavors like this, it's no wonder that the guy from Bizarre Foods has also been there.)

Sweet plantain (tan), rice and beans (yellow),
acerola (pink), chocolate with almonds and orange.
There were even more flavors, but taking pictures of eight display cases in a crowded ice cream shop is mad hard, yo.

Wanting to embrace the widest possible spectrum of flavors, I settled on four flavors, ranging from familiar to unusual. I was quick to choose acerola, a pink cherry whose tart juice I drank at dinner the night before (San Juan's Jose Enrique, whose red snapper ranks as a Top 3 meal of my life), falling in love instantaneously. Also in my bowl was rice and beans, which was a pleasant surprise during my sampling phase. It was subtly sweet and earthy with a mildly gritty texture. I immediately regretted getting the sweet plantain, which had more of a banana flavor than I'd expected. (Curséd fruit.) And while the chocolate with almonds was forgettable and far-from-rich, my date's orange was so refreshing and citrus-y sweet that I had no trouble helping her finish it.

Undoubtedly, some American customers will be surprised by the texture of the ice cream. Given its crystally and thin texture, plus how light it is--think melty pushpop--I wouldn't be surprised if the non-fruit flavors are actually ice milk, or something similar. The fruit flavors are assuredly a water-based sorbet. But while the texture can be jarring and the (probable) use of milk instead of cream drastically altered the experience of my chocolate with almonds, I think that ultimately most customers would enjoy Heladeria Lares for its off-the-beaten-path charm and its brightly-flavored fruit sorbets, not to mention its stranger flavors available for sampling.


Vocabulario de Heladeria Lares 
(Lares Ice Cream Shop Vocabulary)

acerola: a pink cherry, which according to Wikipedia is also known as Barbados cherry, West Indian cherry and wild crepemyrtle
ajo: garlic
Stack the scoops high.
almendra: almond
arroz con dulce: sweet rice (rice pudding)
arroz con gandules: Wikipedia says: "Arroz con gandules is a combination of rice, pigeon peas and pork, cooked in the same pot with Puerto Rican-style sofrito."
arroz con habichuela: rice and beans
bacalao: cod
batata: sweet potato
bizcocho almendrado: almond cake
calabaza: pumpkin
cazuela: pumpkin soup
china: a Puerto Rican slang for orange
chocolate con almendra: chocolate with almond
chocolate con pedazos de chocolate: chocolate with chocolate chips
coquito acanelado: coconut with cinnamon
dulce de ajonjoli: sesame seed candy
dulce de leche: Similar to caramel in texture, taste and color, dulce de leche uses sweetened milk, sometimes goat's milk or coconut milk. 
fresa: strawberry
guama: ice cream fruit (or Wikipedia)
guanábana: soursop
guayaba: guava
guineo: banana (Side note: For anyone crazy enough to like the fruit that is best forgotten, Lares is home to an annual banana festival, so this might be especially good...for what it is, at least.)
jengibre: ginger
lechoza: papaya
maíz: corn
maní: peanut
maní con almendra: peanuts with almonds
pana: breadfruit (Thanks to curiouskitty for the help on this one.)
parcha: passion fruit
piña: pineapple
plátano dulce: sweet plantain
queso con fresa: strawberry cheesecake
Two sample limit: cruelty to afficionados
tamarindo: tamarind, which is used in making sweet and sour sauce
uva playera: sea grape (Is it a grape? Is it something so much more? I didn't get to try it, sadly.)
vainilla caramelo y chocolate: vanilla, caramel and chocolate
vainilla con galletas: cookies and cream (vanilla)
vailnilla con pedazos de chocolate: vanilla with chocolate chips
zanahoria: carrot

Note: I have elected to use the "International" tag because this food is representative of the culture that already existed before Puerto Rico was a U.S. territory.

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