There are three central lessons I learned while talking to Don Luis Abundis, the owner of Nieves Cinco De Mayo in Fruitvale:
1. My mom may always be my biggest fan and my harshest critic. Since the beginning of his business Don Luis’s mother has been helping him come up with flavors, determine what’s marketable, and telling him when something sucks. If she doesn’t like a flavor usually nobody else likes it. I giggled as she lovingly corrected him several times while he told me his business story. My mom, as well as another motherly figure in my life, is probably emailing me right now to tell me about a typo and I hope she always does.
2. The business owners in Fruitvale that I call or visit frequently probably do think I’m la migra at first (which I’ve always suspected). I’ve definitely been hung up on just for calling and asking when the owner would be around. Don Luis told me that he was positive John Birdsall, who would frequently come by to eat ice cream and ask lots of questions, was la migra for a very long time. I’m not sure why an ICE officer would ask questions about arroz con leche ice cream, but I can’t really blame him for being paranoid.
3. Go for your dreams. Don Luis grew up in a small town near Guadalajara. His uncle made ice cream and Luis learned the art from him. In 1984 he came to the US and after years of working “como migrante” (like an immigrant), he started the ice cream business with three flavors and a paleta cart. Then he bought a real truck and seven years ago he moved into the Fruitvale Public Market. The ice cream is hand-made with mostly simple, natural ingredients in an open bucket set over ice and salt. Expect flavors like elote (corn), guava, cactus fruit, and rice. There’s also bubblegum, made from the all natural ingredient of… blue bubblegum? I can’t say I love all the ice cream, some of the sorbets are a little icey and sometimes the milk flavor overpowers the rest of the ingredients. But I do love the mangonadas too (see below) and I know there are a few flavors I am bound to enjoy, I just haven’t tried all of them yet. Don Luis got a little teary-eyed during our interview— on that day it had been seven years since he opened the shop.
Here’s a little video featuring Don Luis explaining how he makes his mangonadas, which came to be after a family from Richmond asked him to add some chile to his mango sorbet…then some chamoy, then some lime, then some real mango. He makes the chile powder with three different types of chile and lots of salt. The whole concoction— much like a real live version of a mango lollipop covered in chile— is sweet, savory, a little spicy and kinda bizarre.