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Stepping into one of Denver’s brightly painted neverias, or ice cream shops, transports Victor Jimenez to Villa Ahumada, Chihuahua, where he and his family used to live, and where he would chop fruit for his family’s business. In fact, Jimenez wouldn’t be here today without the sweet intervention of a neveria; his grandfather owned multiple neverias in Michoacán and Villa Ahumada—and it was at one of these traditional sweet shops (and community gathering places) that Jimenez’s parents met.
“[My grandpa] had all the know-how on everything from the ice cream to the popsicles to the waters [aguas frescas],” says Jimenez, a 27-year-old native of El Paso, Texas, who grew up in his family’s neveria business. His grandfather frequented neveria conventions in Tocumbo, a small town in Michoacán, where many people are dedicated to the business. The town even boasts a giant monument of an ice cream cone intersecting a popsicle.
Neverias are often family-centered, loud in decor, and showy with menu offerings—and they don’t just sell ice cream. There’s usually also paletas (popsicles), smoothies, elote (corn on the cob or in a cup), and other savory snacks. “If [the owners] feel like something is going to sell, they’ll just throw it on the menu and try it out,” Jimenez notes. A customer might suggest a new dish or combination of flavors, or an employee might have been experimenting. That could explain the popularity of items like super loco nachos (Doritos smothered in cheese and topped with beans, chile, and jalapeños), which Jimenez is a fan of. “It’s bad for the body, but good for the soul,” he says.
A few things to look for, according to Jimenez, when visiting a neveria: Check to see if the paleta packaging is marked or not; a logo on the plastic might mean they were purchased wholesale rather than made fresh on-site. Pecan ice cream is likely going to be in the fridges; it’s traditional and typically delicious. If the place offers aguas frescas, they’re best when made fresh (rather than from a powder); cinnamon husks floating in the horchata is a good sign.
Try these classic items from shops around the Denver metro area.
Neveria la Mexicana
Neveria la Mexicana’s scoops are substantial and its flavors taste naturally fresh. The shop imports fruit from Mexico such as guanabanas (aka soursop) and mamey (like a sugared sweet potato) to create with. Mix and match (and share!) with a giant tres Marias sundae: three scoops with your choice of syrup, toppings, chopped fruit, and whipped cream served up in a crisp waffle bowl. Don’t skip out on the aguas frescas, especially the sweet and milky horchata. Locations in Denver (Central Park) and Aurora (East Colfax)
El Bombón Neveria
El Bombón Neveria has a vast menu plus stocks of candy, chips, drinks, and fruit cups. The sign outside says it all: “nieves, jugos, frutas, y algo mas…” (“ice cream, juice, fruit, and anything else…”). Most orders can be upgraded in excess—get your ice cream scoop fried or put on a waffle with chocolate drizzle and fruit. The elote loco (crazy corn on the cob) comes with nacho cheese and hot sauce. For a lighter version, go with the elote entero, which is coated in a mild mayonnaise and cotija cheese layer and dusting of chile. Wash it all down with a green smoothie the size of your head; the energizante option blends pineapple, spinach, orange, avocado, lime, and honey into a naturally sweet refreshment. Locations in Barnum (off Federal Boulevard and Sixth Avenue) and Aurora (off Havana Street)
Paleteria Chihuahua has a smaller, corner bodega feel but still packs in options. The chamango, a mango sorbet drink mixed with salty/spicy/tangy chamoy sauce, is a classic and has a lot of flavor (and may be best split between friends). True to its name, the establishment makes its own paletas, with flavors from guava to coconut to strawberry. Locations in Five Points (off Bruce Randolph Avenue) and Barnum (off First Avenue)