When locals compile lists of things they wish Phoenix had more of, the latest food trends from coastal cities are often near the top. There’s something really basic, however, that we don’t have enough of: top quality places for icy sweets. Given our hot climate, cool places for a cool treat should be on every corner. One neighborhood that is doing better than most is Tempe’s Mill Avenue District. Along this pedestrian-friendly corridor, served by the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station, there are now nearly half a dozen different shops devoted to frozen desserts.
|exterior from Fifth Street|
Mill Avenue’s newest frozen arrival is Paletas Betty. A paleta is essentially a Mexican popsicle, but that’s sort of like saying salsa is Mexican ketchup. In reality, paletas can be complex, hand-crafted treats with varied, bold flavors derived from fresh fruits and ground spices. Many Phoenicians are used to seeing paletas sold from carts pushed or pedaled on neighborhood streets, but Betty Alatorre has created her own walk-in shops. The first was in Downtown Chandler, which like Mill Avenue, is walkable and full of independent businesses.
Now, Paletas Betty has expanded to a second location on Fifth Street just off Mill. It’s a clean, modern, minimalist space enlivened by a few colorful paintings on the wall and jars of the spices used in the paletas behind the counter. The paletas are made at the Chandler location and then brought up to Tempe. Betty herself is often at the counter and can answer questions about the flavors, which vary daily and are announced via the shop’s Web site and on screens behind the counter. There are a few seats inside and out on the patio, but these paletas are good to go.
|pura frambuesa (raspberry)|
Most flavors are priced at 2.79 with a few priced a little lower at $2.49. The lower-priced paletas are usually those based on fruit bases. These are the ones with most vibrant colors and boldest flavors. The arandano is identified as “blueberry lemonade,” and that’s an apt description since the berry sweetness is balanced with a slight bit of tart flavor from citrus. The puro mango is exactly as it sounds — nothing but mango. It’s the simplest and more straightforward flavor, but a welcome refresher after a spicy meal of Vietnamese or Thai food.
|fresa con crema|
Of course, many of the paletas allow spices and dairy to play a more prominent role. Mango makes a second appearance, this time flavored with chile, in a bold use of the world’s most popular fruit. Likewise, the chocolate paleta is spiced up a bit. Some of the most interesting varieties are those that blend fruit into “on a stick” versions of classic desserts. Fresa con crema is a play on strawberries with cream, and the platano paleta recreates the tastes of bananas foster with bits of fruit, smooth caramel, and a shot of flavor from rum.
While fruit and dairy may be the most obvious ingredients, some of the flavors at Paletas Betty go into more innovative territory by incorporating nuts and grains. The nuez is full of orasted pecans in a creamy base. Texturally, it’s the most interesting of the flavors on regular rotation here. Arroz con leche is less crunchy, but still a lively mouthful due to its basis of rice pudding. Most impressive is the reliance on fresh, natural ingredients. That’s a welcome contrast with some of the ice cream and froyo served nearby.
|datil (dates and almonds)|
Regardless of ingredients, every paleta has two common traits. The first is a small bite mark in the corner. Don’t worry, it’s not from an actual bite, but instead part of the mold used to make the paleta, a little signature signifying its readiness to eat. The second is a removable sticker on the wrapper. In a bit of clever marketing, the Web site of Paletas Betty invites customers to send in photos of the stickers, which bear a caricature of Betty, taken in exotic places. So far, the longest distances traveled appears to be trips the stickers have taken to Beijing and Hong Kong.
|melon con albahaca (basil)|
Fortunately, these paletas are found a lot closer than China. They make ideal treats after a meal at many of the nearby casual restaurants that do not serve dessert or function well as snacks while walking from one point to another in Downtown Tempe. At this point, that community is well above average in terms of frozen dessert offerings. There’s still room for improvement — maybe with ice cream of Sweet Republic’s quality or a gelateria like Grateful Spoon. Still, the arrival of Paletas Betty has made Mill Avenue a cooler place in every sense of the word.
425 S. Mill Ave., #109, Tempe AZ 85281
Mill Avenue / Third Street Station