La Michoacana brings Mexican flavors to Sonoma County

Happy Holidays! I hope everyone is relaxing and enjoying time with loved ones.

Before heading to Massachusetts for Christmas, I had to fly out to the West Coast to present at a conference in Sonoma, California. While snow in Washington, DC threatened to cancel my trip, I ended up having an easy time getting myself to the Sonoma County Airport. This quaint single-gate airport is named after cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, who created the comic strip Peanuts. I got a kick out of all the Snoopy paraphernalia in the teeny-tiny airport.

Sonoma is nestled in the heart of California’s wine country. Wineries in Sonoma County tend to be a bit smaller and are mostly family-owned, and thus Sonoma is a bit less crowded and commercialized than neighboring Napa Valley. Sadly, I didn’t have time to visit any wineries during my 48 hours in Sonoma. But the beautiful vineyards and dry, rolling hills left me breathless, and I’ve already asked K to travel to Sonoma together someday.

On my one full day in Sonoma, I did manage to make time for ice cream. Priorities, people! Sitting in my rental car after the conference, a quick iPhone search resulted in a couple choices. But when I read that the New York Times recommended an ice-cream shop called “La Michoacana” in its 36 Hours in Sonoma article, my decision was made. K and I regularly turn to the “36 Hours” series for restaurant and sightseeing tips before traveling to new cities.

Even in the dark evening, it was easy to spot La Michoacana along the busy Highway 12 in Sonoma; the brightly-lit and colorful storefront stands out in an otherwise grey strip of stores. I had read that the owner, Teresita Carr, grew up in Tocumba, Mexico, where the La Michoacana chain was founded. Located in western Mexico, Tocumba is a small town with a big reputation: about 90% of families living in Tocumba are involved in the ice-cream industry (according to this USA Today article).

From what I’ve read, La Michoacana is fairly ubiquitous in Mexico; rather than an official brand, the name is applied to any establishment that carries traditional Tocumba ice cream (referred to as “Michocán-style”, after the state in which Tocumba is located) and traditional Mexican paletas. Ice cream from Tocumba is known for its simple, all-natural ingredients and focus on inventive flavors. Paletas are like better versions of American popsicles — all-natural frozen pops made out of fresh juice, chunks of fruit, and (sometimes) a bit of real cream.

Like a typical shop in Mexico, Sonoma’s La Michoacana offers an incredible variety of flavors. I could’ve easily spent an hour reading through the entire menu of ice cream, sorbet, paleta, and agua fresca flavors and tasting different samples. But since I had to get back to work, I tried to make a quick selection. Many of the fruit flavors sounded delicious (particularly the Coconut Pineapple and Banana Nut ice cream and Guava sorbet), and so did the traditional Americanized flavors like Strawberry Cheesecake, Cookies and Cream, and Rum Raisin. I went with my gut and ordered a two-scoop cup of Chongo (translated as “Custard”) and Peanut Butter, which cost me $4.

Bottom scoop: Peanut Butter
Top scoop: Chongo, or “Custard”

The verdict? Each batch of La Michoacana ice cream is handmade in the back room, and both flavors were fresh and creamy – not a hint of icy freezer burn or artificial flavoring. I wasn’t sure what Chongo would taste like, but I found it very pleasant. It was smooth and creamy, with a rich egg-y flavor reminiscent of Spanish flan or Australian custard. The smoothness of the Chongo offset the crunchiness of the Peanut Butter ice cream, which was very different than the traditional American peanut-butter ice cream. La Michoacana’s version was a bit less sweet, allowing the true peanut taste to shine through. The ice cream was as chock-full of peanut bits as my favorite “super-chunk” peanut butter (maybe even more?), which made for a very satisfying scoop. Think of all that protein! I thoroughly enjoyed both scoops; neither flavor was so unique that it knocked my socks off, but this was excellent ice cream. La Michoacana is on to something, and I hope Mexican ice cream continues to grow in the United States.

The Stats:
La Michoacana
18495 Highway 12
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-1773

Made in Detroit: Treat Dreams

One of the best parts about my job is that it requires me to travel to random cities across the country. Without it, would I be able to say I’ve seen cities like St. Louis, Fresno, and Cleveland? Probably not. And the same goes for Detroit, Michigan – my latest destination. Detroit was never high on my travel list, and I don’t have family or friends in the area to draw me in. 
I’ll be the first to admit that I harbored some less-than-glamorous visions of Detroit. I’ve heard so much about the collapse of the U.S. auto capital and rampant violence in recent years. But the true Detroit didn’t match up with my vision whatsoever. First of all, the airport is gorgeous. Clean, airy terminals with high ceilings and massive windows. Seriously, Detroit’s airport is now in my domestic “Top 5”, after Denver, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. I stayed at the Westin in the airport (early-morning flight back to DC), which has a TSA check-point in the hotel lobby. Just five minutes from check-out to my terminal. Cool, right?
There is a Detroit outside the airport, however, and I was equally impressed with the glimpses of the city I caught on my brief trip. To me, Detroit seemed like the quintessential Midwest American city – all the American-made cars on the road spoke volumes of the Midwestern American pride people feel here. I loved it. 
As it turns out, Detroit is also home to one of the most American ice-cream shops I’ve ever found. While researching before my trip, it was quite apparent that Treat Dreams in Ferndale was the “must try” ice cream.
Despite being just three-years old, Treat Dreams is considered one of the best ice-cream shops in the area… and definitely the most unique! Only an American ice-cream maker would dare serve up flavors like Hot Jalapeño, Lobster Bisque, Pistachio Wasabi or Sunday Breakfast (with bacon!). Owner Scott Maloney, who calls himself “a mad scientist of ice cream”, was formally a banker with no formal ice-cream-making training before opening his shop. But Scott certainly has a knack for thinking outside the proverbial box! Treat Dreams has created hundreds of flavors in-house, and they offer at least a dozen daily on their constantly-changing menu. 
Apparently, the best time to come to Treat Dreams is on a workday during the late afternoon. There were only a couple people in the gigantic shop, and I had the undivided attention of the lady behind the counter. I was surprised to see a couple vegan offerings; I hadn’t expected a Detroit ice-cream shop to cater to the vegan crowd! After I asked her a couple questions about the flavors, I was encouraged to try a sample. Who could turn that offer down? I requested a bite of Raspberry Jalapeño. The raspberry flavor was creamy and sweet at first, but the jalapeño kicked in quickly, coating my tongue with a low heat. K would have loved it, but I was in the mood for something a tad more traditional. Although I’m not a cheesecake fan, the Pumpkin Cream Cheese Walnut stood out. ‘Tis the season! I also was intrigued by the vegan flavors made with rice milk… particularly the Banana Split, which was described as “banana ice cream with chocolate sauce and strawberry sauce.” Without sampling either beforehand, I ordered a single-scoop cup of each. The grand total was $5… not too shabby!
Banana Split on bottom; Pumpkin Cream Cheese Walnut on top
The verdict? One of these ice creams was not like the other. This was one of those occasions when one flavor far outshone the other. I was disappointed with the Banana Split, which was very icy because of the high water content in rice milk. The banana flavor was too subtle, and even the chocolate and strawberry swirls lacked the intense flavors I was hoping for. Feeling deflated, I turned to the Pumpkin Cream Cheese Walnut and — wow — it BLEW my mind. The pumpkin ice cream was laced with thick, gooey swirls of frosting-like cream cheese and studded with walnut pieces. I’m usually not a big fan of cream cheese, but its characteristic flavor accented the spiced pumpkin ice cream. The contrast in textures between the firm ice cream and the cool, soft swirls was irresistible. I couldn’t help but polish off the entire scoop, and it was SO worth it. Please, please stop by Treat Dreams next time you’re in Detroit… and stick with the traditional ice cream if you’re not vegan. I promise you’ll thank me 🙂

The Stats:
Treat Dreams
22965 Woodland Ave
Ferndale, MI 48220