What Chili-Mango Ice Cream Says About Urban Renewal
Mexican businesses are thriving in southwest Detroit, particularly at the snack shop Mangonadas del Barrio, which blends culture and flavor.
By Tracie McMIllan
“The Plate,” National Geographic • Aug. 24, 2016
If I ask you what Detroiters eat to cool off on hot summer days, chances are you think of two Midwestern staples: ice cream and pop. If you know Detroit you might even think Faygo or Vernors. (You may also, to be honest, think beer.)
But folks around Lawndale Street, on the city’s southwest side, have an option that might seem, to outsiders, an odd fit for Detroit: Mexican-style frozen sweets and snacks from a six-table, five-year-old shop called Mangonadas del Barrio. The shop’s namesake, a variation on a popsicle, is a godsend on a steamy August afternoon—and it’s so popular that owner Antonio Hernandez opened up a second shop in June.
“Customers [kept] asking me and complaining that it was always too busy,” says Hernandez, 38.
WHERE SMALL BUSINESS THRIVES
If it’s surprising to hear about an expanding Mexican business in Detroit, that’s likely because this part of the city doesn’t fit neatly into the two reigning stereotypes of it: a downtown-midtown “renaissance” or a tableau of ruin porn and poverty. Yet the city is home to 47,000 Hispanics, about 20,000 of whom were foreign born, making them the city’s largest immigrant group. Many, if not most, live in southwest, and more could be on the way; local officials are trying to encourage immigrants to settle in Detroit.
The neighborhood is arguably as much a part of any “renaissance” as the better-known neighborhoods in the city. Southwest Detroit has a roughly 90 percent occupancy rate for its commercial properties today, says Kathy Wendler, president of the Southwest Business Development Association. The neighborhood never saw large-scale abandonment, and small businesses have thrived there. Even two years ago, commercial occupancy was at 78 percent, within striking distance of the central business district, where it was 84 percent. And outside southwest and downtown, significantly lower commercial occupancy rates are still common today.
Many of the neighborhood’s selling points, says Wendler, can be attributed to the entrepreneurial instincts of immigrants like Hernandez. The shop owner began selling mangonadas after he ended up with 20 extra cases of ripe mangoes from his weekend hustle of selling restaurants produce that was ripe (but about to turn). His stepmother, who he was living with, knew just what to do with them: Make a sweet mango slush; turn it tangy with chamoy, a sour and savory sauce; and add ripe mango chunks. Freeze it, and douse it with lime, chile powder and hot sauce before eating. The recipe, she told him, was common in Juarez, where she was from.
“I just tasted it, and I was like, ‘This is real good! It’s like a mango popsicle,” says Hernandez. “I asked her, ‘Will you make me like a hundred of these and I’ll sell them? And she’s like, ‘Yeah, lets try it.’”
The next weekend, Hernandez was selling the treats at a local flea market, setting up shop with a chest freezer he got on sale at Walmart, he says. Eventually the health department suggested he use a formal kitchen, and—with an informal loan from a friend who also loaned him an extra storefront to start—by 2012 he had opened his first shop. The initial menu: mangonadas, fresas con crema, cocteles con frutas, and aguas frescos.
DORILOCOS SOLD HERE
Today, the menu has expanded to more than two dozen items, many of them inspired by friends and customers telling Hernandez and his wife, Maribel, what they eat across the Mexican diaspora. Relatives sent in videos from YouTube and Facebook, says Hernandez, and that’s how he learned about Mexico City’s Dorilocos; Hernandez’s iteration tops a bag of nacho cheese Doritos with cubed mango, jicama, cucumber, cueritos (pickled pork rinds), peanuts, gummy spaghetti, hot sauce, and chamoy. (Think of it, roughly, as a sort of Dorito salad.) Customers have suggested things too: A Chicago transplant made a savvy request for Dorielotes—a bag of Doritos accompanied by boiled sweet corn, cotija cheese, mayonnaise, chile, lime, and salt—that’s now a top seller.
This year, Hernandez introduced a menu item that seems equal parts Mexico and Midwest: a “build your own” snack bowl—think: a salad bar for snacks, fruit, and candies—called a loka. (If you don’t read Spanish, that’s a variation on loca, Spanish for “crazy.”)
Business is doing so well, said Hernandez, that Mangonadas has started catering too. In early August, a Mexican rodeo came to a nearby town and asked Mangonadas to set up a booth. Later this month, they’ll be selling at a Hispanic music festival on the riverfront that’s featuring melting-pot rockers Ozomatli.
Still, it’s the neighborhood shops that are at the heart of Hernandez’s business. On a recent Friday afternoon, 16-year-old Cristián Valerio visited the shop with his mother and sister and ordered his favorite, the Tornado, a chile-slush spiked with chunks of pineapple and mango and topped off with grapefruit soda.
“They get really creative with their food, and that’s what I like about it,” says Valerio. “You think about, ‘Oh my God, who would have thought to put all of that in a bag of Doritos?’”