South-of-the-Border Sweet Treats

By C. Jill Hofer

Visitors and residents agree. In Tucson, life is sweet. Picture-perfect weather, arts, music, culture, nature, and abundant culinary choices make Tucson a top spot to live and vacation. It doesn’t hurt to have easy access to many treats from south of the border without leaving the Old Pueblo. Explore a world of Mexican sweets with no passport required.

What’s so Sweet? Raspados

This cool concoction is enjoyed around the globe. Known as shaved ice, snow cones, Italian ice, and more, by any name, they are refreshing and delectable. Crafted from a variety of freshly chopped fruits and a myriad of toppings, raspados can be creamy with condensed milk and ice cream or non-dairy with just fruit and ice. Add chamoy syrup, chili powder, a squeeze of lemon, and tangy tamarind candies for a distinctively south-of-the-border sweet and sour twist.

Where to Find the Treat? OASIS FRUIT RASPADOS

Since 1983, the Carrizosa family has delighted Tucson with authentic raspados at Oasis Fruit Raspados. Pick your passion from a dozen or more raspados varieties, including banana, coconut, pineapple, and mango, or venture off the beaten path with plum, tamarind, or cantaloupe. Amp up the experience with a Picosito — the combination of tamarind, plum flavoring, and chili powder goes down surprisingly smoothly through the (also delicious) tamarind-dipped straw. Order yours macedonias-style to substitute ice cream for ice. Try an escamocha (loosely translated as “leftovers”): a Mexican fruit salad crafted with variable, flexible ingredients, such as creamy yogurt and a sprinkling of granola for an added crunch. Iced coffees and a broad selection of snack foods ensure everyone goes home happy.

What’s so Sweet? Pan Dulce

The subject of pan (bread) dulce (sweet) conjures images of the pastries offered to ancestors on the Day of the Dead. The most iconic example found in every Mexican bakery is the concha, thus named because it looks like a seashell. Soft bread is baked with colorful cookie dough designs on top. Other classics include bandera (flag) cookies in red, white, and green, and pretty pink niño envuelto (sponge cake jelly rolls) coated in coconut sprinkles. Ever-popular empanadas are tasty filled turnovers, beloved around the world.

Where to Find the Treat? LA ESTRELLA BAKERY

For a pan dulce taste tour, head to a La Estrella Bakery. Sample their showy conchas, taste the bandera shortbread cookies, and bite into the almost too-cute-to-eat cohitos (little pigs) made with molasses and cinnamon. Delight in a variety of classic doughnuts, jelly rolls, and specialty cakes, and don’t miss their top seller: empanadas. Regulars line up for these petite turnovers filled with pineapple, mango, apple, Bavarian cream, and their most popular: pumpkin. The family-operated bakery opened in 1986 on 12th Avenue: both locations also offer bread, tortillas, tamales, and menudo to satisfy sweet and savory cravings of Mexico.

What’s So Sweet? Loca Diced Fruits

Fresh fruit cups (vasos de fruta), found in cities and towns across Mexico, have been a beloved street food for generations. They’re a symphony of seasonal fruits, often topped with tangy chamoy syrup, chili powder, and lemon juice. These colorful cups are a simple, healthy snack full of flavor and zing. As beautiful as they are delicious, unique versions of this Mexican street fare can be sampled at select Tucson raspado shops.

Where to Find the Treat? FUNLAND RASPADOS AND MUNCHIES

This colorful establishment has a jam-packed menu, but Funland’s loca diced fruit treats can’t be beat. Available in Sandia Loca (watermelon) and Piña Loca (pineapple), they are a fiesta de fruitas. It’s easy to see why they’re named “loca” (crazy). Fruit lovers are lured in by the gorgeous presentation of a whole watermelon or pineapple, cored and filled to overflowing with fruit, Japanese peanuts, and tamarind candies, then topped with a tamarind straw, a single saladito (salted dry plum), and a tiny umbrella. They’re a feast for the eyes, and their generous size makes them suitable to share with the whole family.

What’s So Sweet? Specialty Cakes

Grown-ups and kids on both sides of the border share an affection for confection and a love of celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions with a cake. When we think of Mexican-inspired cake flavors, tres leches (three milks) most often come to mind. Give this moist, luscious cake a try, or choose from an endless variety of familiar favorites, from cheesecakes to good old-fashioned chocolate.

Where to Find the Treat? SUSPIROS PASTELERÍAS

Now the largest bakery in Mexico with outposts in Tucson, this family business began in Hermosillo in 2003. The name Suspiros (sigh) refers to desserts so good they “don’t last as long as a sigh.” Artfully decorated and almost too pretty to slice, customer favorites are strawberries and cream, piña colada, black forest, oreo, plum, coconut, and quatro leches.

It’s a step beyond tres leches, and the fourth leche is yogurt! For a taste of old Mexico, the bakery serves coyota cheesecake with a sampling of coyota pastries on the side. Coyota was the name given to the women of Mexican and native heritage who visited cities and towns to sell their round pie-crust goodies. Eventually, the famous pastries were also called coyotas. To this day, they provide a decadent taste of history.

What’s so Sweet? Paletas

At first glance, these frozen delights look a bit like an ordinary Popsicle. One bite reveals a world of difference. Refreshing and simple, paletas are handcrafted from a dizzying array of ingredients, from natural fruits to nuts and cookies. The contents are blended with condensed milk or water, poured into a mold, and chilled. A bit like a mosaic on a stick, paletas are delicious works of art.

Where to Find the Treat? PALETERIA Y NEVERÍA LA MICHOACANA

Named for Michoacán, the Mexican state where paletas originated in the 1940s, this bustling pink-striped paletería offers a tantalizing variety of flavors. La Michocana’s strawberries and cream paleta is numero uno, and among the dairy-free selections, their watermelon and mango paletas top the list in popularity. Several varieties are dipped in chocolate and coated in coconut, pistachios, walnuts, or pecans for an added flavor sensation. The spicy Diablito features Mexican candies and chamoy syrup for a tangy twist. Variety, freshness, and innovative paletas keep customers returning again and again.

What’s so Sweet? Mexican Candies

To most American palates, the mix of tangy, spicy, sweet, and sour tastes aren’t expected in a candy. One brave bite will pucker your mouth, open your eyes, and tantalize your taste buds. At first odd and intriguing, the flavor combinations may have you reaching for more. You might find yourself dreaming about complex, nuanced Mexican candies long after your taste-test expedition.

Where to Find the Treat? FOOD CITY, MOM & POP MARKETS

A quick trip to the grocery store or corner market can feel like a mini-vacation in Tucson. Add a little spice to life at any Food City grocery store or one of the many Hispanic mom and pop markets around town, where bountiful candy aisles transcend the standard Snickers and traditional Twix. Tried-and-true favorites include dried mango strips coated in spicy chili powder, mysterious wrinkled saladitos (dried plums), colorful bandera coconut bars, and off-the-chart sweet marzipan varieties. Tamarind-based snacks abound, served in plastic spoons, on drinking straws, and in the spiraling serpentina candies often found atop raspados and diced fruits. Mexican candies are often presented in clear packaging to reveal a glimpse of what’s in store, so grab the ones that catch your eye.

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