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Food & Travel

N.C. paleterias making the most of ‘pop’ culture

The whiteboard at Locopops' Chapel Hill location spells out the daily choices. The Mexican-style popsicles have become popular with all ages seeking relief from the North Carolina heat. The whiteboard at Locopops' Chapel Hill location spells out the daily choices. The Mexican-style popsicles have become popular with all ages seeking relief from the North Carolina heat. (Kaia Parkinson)
By Luke Pyenson
Globe Correspondent / August 25, 2010

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DURHAM, N.C. — It’s a hot, humid, heavy day. Not exactly biscuits and gravy weather. Even barbecue seems a little much. Cooling down with the ubiquitous and awesome sweet tea is fine — it practically comes out of the faucets here. Luckily, North Carolinians have a unique and refreshing way to beat the Southern heat: paletas, Mexican-style popsicles, from Locopops.

Founded in 2005 by the aptly named Summer Bicknell, Locopops is a bit of a play on words, best exhibited by its well thought-out slogan: “Think Global, Act Loco.’’ The tradition of paleta-making originated in Mexico, and the paletas from Locopops are more than 50 percent locally sourced. The story of the birth of Locopops might qualify as crazy. Bicknell, after getting an MBA, was stuck in an information technology job in Nashville (“I felt like I was doing everything I had been trained to do, it’s just that I was miserable’’) and looking for a change. A visit from an out-of-town friend inspired a trip to a local Mexican popsicle place she’d been wanting to try. That was on a Saturday. On Monday, she quit her job and soon after drove to Mexico to ask a woman she had never met in the tiny town of Tlazazalca (don’t bother trying to sound that out) to teach her how to make paletas.

After a rewarding three-month apprenticeship, Bicknell had discovered the secrets of Mexican pops. Paletas were apparently popularized by two brothers from the state of Michoacán who went to Mexico City in the 1930s and started a lucrative popsicle business. Their success motivated friends, relatives, friends of friends, friends of relatives, and so on to do the same until every little town in Mexico ended up with a popsicle shop (paleteria) called La Michoacána (or some variant thereof) in its town square.

Now Locopops has four locations in the Research Triangle (Durham, Raleigh, and two in Chapel Hill). The popsicles are sold in some local markets and at Duke University. It’s even possible to order 100 or more for special events.

It’s clear that the popsicle guru in Tlazazalca taught Bicknell well. A banana-pomegranate-cardamom popsicle is deep red with barely visible little black specks of cardamom. The flavor comes in waves, first banana, then pomegranate, and finally a subtle splash of minty, peppery cardamom. It’s a genius combination, and the layers of flavor are so distinct and complex, it could have been created in molecular gastronomy chef Ferran Adrià’s laboratory.

A Mexican chocolate popsicle is actually more like ice cream on a stick. Whereas the banana-pomegranate-cardamom popsicle is a “paleta de agua,’’ or water-based popsicle, this one is a “paleta de crema,’’ or cream-based. The consistency, though, isn’t much different. Both have a pleasant chew, and none of that undesirable iciness. The Mexican chocolate is expertly flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, and exudes the spicy spirit of that delicious country.

The flavor is part of Locopops’ “regulars’’ menu comprising the bestsellers, plus mango-chili, which has a cult following. Other offerings are referred to as “guest stars,’’ which can be seasonally inspired, experimental, or suggested by customers. “I used to be walking to work and people would drive by and roll down their windows, say ‘grapefruit basil!’ and drive off,’’ says Bicknell. Now it’s one of her favorite “guest stars.’’

There’s a flavor for every taste at Locopops. Children and their mothers or sitters come in during the day, and popsicle-loving romantics on dates at night. Somewhat unintentionally, the flagship store in Durham has become a bit of a local hangout, playing a societal role not unlike that of the paleteria in Mexico.

Bicknell took a gamble by opening a Mexican-style popsicle shop in North Carolina. Five years later, the business is going strong. As the IT memories melt away, Locopops is sweeter than ever.

Locopops, 2600 Hillsborough Road, Durham, N.C.; 1908 Hillsborough Road, Raleigh, N.C.; 128 East Franklin St., Chapel Hill, N.C.; 231 South Eliot Road, Chapel Hill, N.C.; or go to www.ilovelocopops.com.

Luke Pyenson can be reached at luke.pyenson@tufts.edu.