Arizona can get pretty toasty come summer. It’s no surprise, then, that we’ve perfected the art of the cool palate pleaser. Many flavorful refreshers are imports from our southern neighbor, Mexico; others are inspired by plants of the Sonoran Desert, which sweep across the region.
Shaved Ice and Raspados
It started out of a truck and now with 22 fixed locations in Tucson and one in Casa Grande, Eegee’s has been purveying fruity shaved-ice concoctions, such as lemon and piña colada, since 1971.
Also in Tucson, Sonoran Sno-Cones offers a variety of raspados, Mexican shaved ice. Exotic flavors include mango, plum and tamarind (a sweet-and-sour fruit). For tartness, add lime juice and chamoy (a savory sauce made from pickled fruit).
The toppings at Oasis Raspados in Phoenix are likely to have you thumbing through your Spanish translation apps. You might add cacahuates (peanuts) or serpentinas (chili-dusted fruit leather) to your fresh watermelon and peach combo.
For added richness, RaspadoRico in Tempe offers leche quemada (carmelized milk) as well as ice cream. Order a bionoco if you want a tropical fruit cocktail base.
Paletas – named for their palos, or sticks – are similar to popsicles, but with Latin flair. The ice-based varieties, mostly sweet and fruity, also come in savory flavors like cucumber, while the creamier milk-based kind include arroz con leche (rice pudding).
Paletas are often found where raspados are sold – for example, Raspados Michoacan in Tucson, featuring standards like mango during the week and more exotic varieties on the busier weekends.
Paletas Betty, with branches in Chandler and Tempe, concentrates on their namesake treats, with daily changing housemade options such as pineapple with chili powder or naranja – orange vanilla cream, a south-of-the-border Creamsicle.
Next to our native saguaro cacti, nothing says “desert” like skinny date palms, imported to Arizona from the Middle East about a century ago. The grove that grew into Dateland near Yuma has drawn motorists since the 1920s; the original snack shack morphed into a Quiznos, but its date shakes are as genuine as ever.
Closer to downtown Yuma, Martha’s Garden Date Farm also creates a delicious health food drink from their Medjools (hey, dates are high in fiber and ice cream is rich in calcium).
A rare Black Sphinx date seedling spurred the rise of a glamorous date ranch in metropolitan Phoenix; the Sphinx Date Co. Palm & Pantry in Scottsdale still celebrates its namesake with date milkshakes, and offers more potent refreshers from two newer Arizona industries – craft beer and wine.
Nearly every casual Mexican food stand features a barrel-shaped dispenser filled with horchata, a sweet rice drink laced with cinnamon. Horchata is the most common type of agua fresca (literally, fresh water), but these light beverages, which mix fresh fruit and veggies or herbs with sweetened water, come in many flavors.
In Tucson, the The Café at the YW turns out everything from peach-basil to strawberry-mint varieties, depending on what’s in season.
Scottsdale’s upscale Barrio Queen, a stylish restaurant with a full bar, offers hibiscus flower, tamarind and pineapple aguas frescas.
At Diego Pops, another chic Scottsdale dining room, you can get your agua fresca – perhaps Limeade flavored – straight or spiked.
Unique Ice Cream
Tucson chef Janos Wilder won a James Beard award for his dazzling New Southwest cuisine, including his sweet-and-spicy chocolate jalapeño ice cream. Sample it in a sundae at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails.
The Food Channel praised the go-local ethos of Sweet Republic, with branches in Phoenix and Scottsdale. You’ll find such exotic flavored ice cream as honey blue cheese and salted butter caramel, all made with ingredients from Arizona farms and dairies.
“No dinner until you eat all your dessert” is the slogan at Chaparral Homemade Ice Cream, a homespun café in the western town of Wickenburg. For something unique, try the prickly pear, made from sweet ripe fruit of the cactus with the same name.