Food & Drink

Paleta Powerhouse Mateo’s is an LA Ice Cream Staple

The family-owned shop interprets the fruity Mexican dessert by way of Oaxaca.

Elizabeth Mateo
Elizabeth Mateo | Courtesy of Sean Cooley
Elizabeth Mateo | Courtesy of Sean Cooley

A family-run operation known for its fresh-fruit paletas, Mateo's produces some of LA’s best ice cream. It’s been a staple since opening up shop in 2000, and now has four locations, the flagship being in Mid-city, as with so many of LA’s mainstay eateries, right at home in an unassuming strip mall. You know by the tower of farmer’s market-fresh produce on display that you’ve made a wise choice on any given 98-degree day.

For the uninitiated, paletas are Mexican popsicles ranging in consistency from creamy milk-based ice cream to frosty sorbets. It trades on simplicity, using a flavor base of natural fruits, often chunked and encased in the pop, sometimes skewered right on the stick. Mateo’s interprets the dessert tradition by way of its founder’s native Oaxaca, where paleta shops and beach-side push carts abound.

Mateo's
Courtesy of Sean Cooley

“Mateo’s is a traditional paleta shop straight from Oaxaca, where people have enjoyed these exciting flavors of ice cream for generations,” says Bricia Lopez, co-owner of renowned Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza in Koreatown. “It speaks so much to the culture because it’s brought by somebody who lives that lifestyle.”

For Mateo’s late founder, Priciliano Mateo, making the jump from Oaxaca to California back in 1982 came with the hopes that he could pursue his dream of sharing his favorite childhood treat in Los Angeles while providing for his family. Starting with an eight-month work permit, Priciliano hustled by washing dishes, bussing tables, and bartending at various restaurants and later on, in true Hollywood fashion, at the Warner Bros. Studios. A people-person through and through, his daughter Elizabeth Mateo remembers when he came to gift her with autographs he had gathered from the entire cast of Friends.

“If something is great then it’s universally great,” says Lopez, “when you’re serving a dish that has a rich and long history, you don’t always need to reinvent things."

While continuing to juggle jobs, Priciliano would open up Mateo’s in 2000 inside a modest Pico-Union storefront, charming patrons with paletas made from avocado, kiwi, and strawberries. His decades-long grind has resulted in a thriving chain making up to 5,000 paletas from scratch per day with more than 40 employees, all of whom have been retained amid hospitality restrictions due to COVID-19.

Up until his untimely passing in 2018, Priciliano remained very hands on with the business, continually making trips to the Alameda Produce Market, the same early morning treks Elizabeth remembers making with him as a teenager when they’d pack their Toyota Corolla to the brim with fresh fruit.

Elizabeth Mateo
Elizabeth Mateo | Courtesy of Sean Cooley

Nowadays, Elizabeth, age 29, manages the Mid-city shop and, along with her family, carries on her father’s ambition. A small altar to Prisciliano sits on the back counter, honoring the paleta patriarch who took every online review and comment to heart.

“We want to continue my father’s legacy,” says Elizabeth, “you don’t see a lot of paleta stores out there. It’s important that the staff and customers are happy, and the product is consistently at the quality it needs to be.”

On top of a rigorous work ethic and a passion for frozen sweets, another thing Prisciliano leaves behind is his signature smoked milk (leche quemada) and cactus fruit paleta. Made with whole milk that’s been slow-cooked to imbue a smoky flavor profile, the popsicle is anchored with a layer of cactus fruit (also known as pitaya or dragon fruit) to give it a punch of fruit juice acidity. 

“In Oaxaca, we just like the taste of “burnt” things. Our meats are smoked, our mezcal is smoked, ice cream is no different,” says Lopez.

Courtesy of Sean Cooley

Leche quemada is one of 30+ paleta flavors found on the menu at Mateo's. Among them are the street vendor-inspired cucumber and chile; a creamy, almost cake batter-y mamey; and nance, a yellow cherry flavor that somehow oscillates between tart and cheesy. For Elizabeth, it’s routinely gratifying to match up a customer with a fruit flavor, sometimes one with a complexity that may elicit a double- or triple-take before ultimately winning them over. 

“It’s about exposing people to different fruit, real fruit without any artificial flavors or colors,” she says. “With so many different flavors, even if it’s not the first or second one you try, you’re always going to walk out of here satisfied with what you’ve got.”

While that expansive menu of flavors reflects the city’s largely Latinx population, at its essence, Mateo's also succeeds for the same reasons any storied neighborhood scoop shop does, it’s cultivated a community with a broad spectrum of tastes. 

“Ice cream shops help the community feel like a family,” says Bill Esparza, James Beard Award-winning author of L.A. Mexicano. “Yes, Latinos want to get their paletas, but if you’re white, Black, Asian, you’re there because it's a great neighborhood shop that makes a quality product. If you don’t know a fruit, a great way to try it is through ice cream, you might get hooked on nance.”

Providing paletas to the masses will continue to be a Mateo family tradition as they eye expansion into new locations and the wholesale market.

“If something is great then it’s universally great,” says Lopez, “when you’re serving a dish that has a rich and long history, you don’t always need to reinvent things.“

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Sean Cooley has just learned that “stressed” spelled backward is “desserts.” Tell him what to do with this information on Instagram @SeanCoolish.