For the last two years, I’ve looked at the banner on the side of a wall at a Reseda strip mall and wondered: What does it mean?
“Mexican Kosher Ice Cream.”
It seems so cryptic. So exotic. So … unlikely.
So one day, on a whim, I pulled into the parking lot off of Lindley Avenue, determined to investigate. Inside a small, narrow establishment — wedged between a liquor store and a 7-Eleven — I met ice cream maker Rafael Algaze, a 63-year-old Jew from Chile.
He stood behind freezers full of exotic ice creams and sorbets. Their colors were electric — bright pink, orange and yellow — while their hard-to-pronounce names referred to fruits I knew nothing about. There was guanabana (a prickly green fruit from Central America), lucuma (a native of Peru with a bright yellow flesh) and mamey (a soft and creamy fruit cultivated in Mexico).
He insisted I try all of them.
Rafael Algaze makes an assortment of authentic, kosher ice cream.
“People are surprised,” he said, describing the reaction many people have to his business, known both as La Reyna de Michoacan (“The Queen of Michoacan,” a state in Mexico) and, as it says more simply on his business cards, Mexican Kosher Ice Cream.
Explaining the kosher part is easy. He uses only kosher ingredients, separates his dairy products from those that are parve and proudly displays his kosher certification.
Algaze, who attends Chabad and Beit Avraham Community Sephardic Synagogue in Woodland Hills, where he lives, said he decided to keep a kosher store at the behest of his Orthodox children’s rabbi.
As for the Mexican part, that’s no joke.
“I learned to make the ice cream in Mexico,” Algaze said. “It’s made with real fruit. Everything is for real. We don’t use [artificial] flavors at all.”
That’s evident at first taste, whether it’s the coffee ice cream, whose unadulterated flavor comes through rich and strong, or the queso ice cream, which is peppered with little chunks of real cheese.
Other flavors — all of which Algaze makes in a back room of the shop — vary from the traditional cookies-and-cream to a fluorescent banana-orange sorbet. There’s even an authentic-tasting eggnog option.
“I love to do the ice cream,” Algaze said. “It’s nice. It’s good. People love it.”
Count among those people, apparently, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who stopped by for a sample recently during a joint tour of the San Fernando Valley.
Making Mexican kosher ice cream is a relatively new venture for Algaze, who moved to the United States in 1987, returned to Chile, and then came back for good in 2001.
“Everything happens by chance,” he said. “I was in Mexico a few years ago, and I tried [the] ice cream and it was amazing. I loved it.”
He started talking to a vendor about it and asked the man to teach him the craft. That allowed him to change direction from his career in the clothing industry. Algaze said he had a store in downtown L.A. until the economy tanked in 2008.
These days, he estimates that 20 percent of his customers are Jewish, some of them driving long distances to get the kosher treats, especially for, say, Shavuot. The rest of his clients tend to be Latino, he said.
But, of course, there’s always a little left over for him and his wife.
“When you make it, you have to try it,” he said. “You’re always eating ice cream.”
Mexican Kosher Ice Cream / La Reyna de Michoacan / 7147 Lindley Ave., Reseda / (213) 321-1547
Main photo: His sorbets are made from a variety of exotic fruits. Photos by Lynn Pelkey