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From the Birthplace of Mexico’s Paleta Industry to Anaheim, ‘Tocumbo’ Serves Up a Scoop of Michoacán History

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he first display case you see when you walk into Tocumbo Ice Cream in Anaheim is the paletas.  The myriad of flavors and colors all stacked up and laid out flat in front of you, and without fail, different colors catch my eye every time.  The deep orange-yellow of the rompope. Or maybe the bright green of the limón. Oooh, and you can’t forget the yellow and red-orange swirls of the mango chamoy. 

If you’re lucky and see it, it’s an absolute must-buy; you’ll see the blood-red color of their pitaya paleta. It’s all like an edible, way tastier version of the light display from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Make your way around the corner, and you see the ice creams: Guayaba. Guanabana. Maracuya. Chongos. As Elsa Covarrubias of Anaheim, a longtime customer of Tocumbo, calls it, “It’s like an ice cream United Nations gathering behind that counter.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. It’s just ice cream. You can just go to a La Michoacana with their rows and rows of flavors, candy, and fruit and get the same thing. It’s not that big of a deal.

Well, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of various diaspora of regions and cities across Latin America that would disagree with you.

The family behind Tocumbo. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.
The family behind Tocumbo. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.

Across the street from Tocumbo Ice Cream, on the west side of Euclid and Ball, there’s a La Michoacana Deluxe. A couple of blocks over, on Brookhurst and Ball, there’s a La Michoacana Gourmet. Nine minutes away, on Harbor and Orangewood, there’s a La Michoacana Ice Cream. Seven minutes away, there’s another La Michoacana Ice Cream on Lincoln between Broadway and Magnolia. Variety cannot set Tocumbo apart from its competition.  It’s their commitment to creating as authentic an ice cream experience as possible. Jennifer Clausen-Quiroz and her brother Ricky Quiroz welcome the competition.

“The sun comes out for everybody,” explains Quiroz. “But, once you actually taste the difference, you decide at that point. Everyone that has tried our product has come back.”

Those return customers that Quiroz refers to, more often than not, belong to various diasporas from Mexico, Central, and South America. Diaspora that hears about the offerings at Tocumbo and comes in to sample and see for themselves if the paletas and ice creams at Tocumbo really, genuinely taste from home. The test starts with the nevería’s name itself. Tocumbo, Michoacán is considered to be the birthplace of Mexico's paleta industry. There’s even a concrete sculpture of a large paleta with a globe bursting out of it covered in smaller paletas. 

Chamoy paletas.
Chamoy paletas. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.

“Older men come in, those that have lived in Mexico, and they say, ‘Let’s see if you’re really from Tocumbo,’” says Clausen-Quiroz. “I tell them our recipes are from Tocumbo, so they had better be ready for this. Then we get that nod of approval, and they return with their parents or their families. It’s the best thing.”

The popularity of the responses catches even Jennifer and Ricky by surprise. An example of this is when they came into possession of Fervi, a chocolate de metate from Jerez, Zacatecas, whose diaspora has thousands of people in Anaheim alone. “A family friend of ours brought some back from Zacatecas and asked us if we could make a small piece of it into ice cream,” said Ricky. 

“It’s cross-generational. These people literally got us through the pandemic,” says Clausen-Quiroz through tears. “The working-class people. They’ve been our ride-or-die. They want to support us. We’ve seen babies come in, and now they’re older. That’s been something that’s been really fun to experience and something we never expected, and having people feel welcomed has probably been the strongest thing for us.”

“We wanted to make sure that it was supposed to taste like this because we didn’t want to ruin the chocolate and make it into chocolate caliente,” added Jennifer. “Once it got the approval, we had her come back because we had one chance, and we wanted to get it right! It tasted like Mexico, like chocolate de metate: earthy, not too sweet. Just delicious.”

After promoting it on Instagram, the team at Tocumbo was overwhelmed by the response. “We had no idea, so many of our customers were from Jerez,” says Quiroz. “We had to get three or four more bars to make a batch that lasted.”

Tastes of home have long served as a bridge back to the motherland, or at least memories of it, said Adrian Felix, Associate Professor at the University of California, Riverside, and author of Specters of Belonging: The Political Life Cycle of Mexican Migrants and a Jerezano. He has yet to try the Fervi ice cream but trusts friends from there who have raved about it. “An example of this is when I reintroduced my cousins to Burritos La Palma [another Jerez member of the Southern California diaspora]. From the first bite, the reaction was telling: eyes closed, heads tilted back, wide grins emerged, and childhood memories rushed in with every mouthful.”

For Clausen-Quiroz and Quiroz, it’s the want and absolute necessity to make their flavors as authentic as possible. For Jerezanos like Covarrubias, Tocumbo honored that authenticity. “We were so grateful that Jenn and Ricky honored Fervi’s legacy while at the same time creating something new, bringing it to life in a new way.”

Fervi chocolate ice cream, the chocolate is imported from Zacatecas. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.
Fervi chocolate ice cream, the chocolate is imported from Zacatecas. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.
Fervi chocolate is imported from Zacatecas. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.
Fervi chocolate is imported from Zacatecas. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.

“People have come up to us that are from Peru and recommend stuff. From Colombia. They’ll ask if we can get this ingredient or that fruit because it’s very specific to their home country,” says Quiroz. “I tell them if I can get it, I can make it into ice cream. You’re not getting that at La Michoacana.”  Maracuya. Pistachio, and when I say pistachio, not artificially colored Green Lantern-looking pistachio. Nance. Quince (which is probably my current favorite). Fig. Gansito. Mazapán. All made from scratch.

One of the first eight flavors that Tocumbo had at their original location in San Diego was chongos Zamoranos, a traditional dessert from Zamora in Michoacán made up of curdled milk cinnamon, and sugar. Hailing from Cotija, the Quiroz’s recipe is a family one, and yet again, customers come in skeptical. They were tested because to Zamoranos, chongos is to them what paletas is to Tocumbo: It’s what they do.

“No one really had that flavor in Tocumbo or thought about making it into ice cream,” explains Quiroz. “It goes back to the Fervi—we had a mix of people that knew what it should taste like, and it was up to us to turn it into ice cream.”

“They [people] have accepted us for what we have and what we don’t have, and that’s been especially hard to prove in the Mexican community because if you’re going to say that it’s authentic, it had better stay that way,” reaffirms Clausen-Quiroz. And keep it authentic they do. Tocumbo prides itself on using fresh ingredients such as raw milk, a distinction that they can tell sets them apart when conversing with owners of other La Michoacanas that, well, don’t. “We love that their family is finding a way to connect people to the motherland and introduce others to international flavors that they otherwise wouldn’t know about,” adds Covarrubias.

Some of the best advice Jenny and Ricky received came from their cousin Omar, who runs the original San Diego shops. He let them know that their main clientele wouldn’t be the tourists in town for five days to visit the House of Mouse. It would be the sanitation workers. The landscapers. The hotel workers. Painters. If it’s authentic and welcoming, they’d bring back their families.

“It’s cross-generational. These people literally got us through the pandemic,” says Clausen-Quiroz through tears. “The working-class people. They’ve been our ride-or-die. They want to support us. We’ve seen babies come in, and now they’re older. That’s been something that’s been really fun to experience and something we never expected, and having people feel welcomed has probably been the strongest thing for us.”

“We don’t want to turn anyone away or feel overwhelmed,” reminds Quiroz. “We just want to be authentic to ourselves and to our culture, and still evolve with our community, but also bring it back to what we believe in.”

956 S Euclid St, Anaheim, CA 92802

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