Steel City Pops Sizzle and Chill
From behind the counter looking out onto Greenville Avenue it’s hard to tell where the line for ice pops ends. One or two customers prop open the door, obscuring the view while letting hot, muggy air pour in, and the line extends beyond them, out onto the patio where more customers buzz about, discussing coveted flavors. Have you had the peanut butter yet? Briefly, the line recedes inside the door, only to quickly extend again all the way out to the sidewalk. Steel City Pops, a new frozen treats shop on Greenville Avenue, is selling fruit on a stick so fast the local paleteros are scratching their heads.
Outside the shop, customers of all ages clutch flat planks of white birch and race the summer heat to capture as much of their pops as possible before they liquefy and fall to the hot pavement below. Kids stare wide-eyed with dilated pupils as they paint their faces, shirts and toenails in reds, soft greens and purples. There is so much slurping the pavement looks as though pigeons have been roosting above every seating surface from nearby Oram Street to Prospect Avenue. It’s pandemonium and there is every indication that it’s just gotten started.
“It’s going really well,” says owner Jim Watkins.
Steel City came to Dallas via Homewood, Alabama, where Watkins decided that pops modeled after paletas he found in Tennessee were the best way out of an unfulfilling career as a musician. His first shop quickly yielded a second and a third and fourth, as catering gigs and special events added to his swelling business. Dallas is his first out-of-state shop, and another in Fort Worth is scheduled to open this week.
“Dallas has been good to us,” Katie Haley says as she looks at the line stretching to the street. Haley is a pint-sized pixie with big brown eyes and short-cropped hair who moved here from Alabama to become the kitchen manager. Every day, she hulls and slices case after case of strawberries, rinses blackberries and blueberries and cuts up boxes of melons, avocados and other fruits and vegetables.
The fruit sits in a large walk-in refrigerator along with a kaleidoscope of other colorful ingredients until she’s ready to combine them according to Watkins’ exacting recipes. Some combinations, like the cajeta and cherry sour cream, are gently cooked to help the flavors meld. Others are left raw to preserve fresh, fruity and vegetal flavors. Every combination takes a thorough beating from a stick blender the size of a little league baseball bat until they’re as smooth as a French bisque, and then they’re stored in the same walk-in until they’re ready to be frozen into pops.
All the mechanics are on display behind a long glass wall that separates the hallways that leads to the bathroom from the kitchen. Two young dudes with baseball caps and T-shirts draped to their knees work a packaging machine. A series of rollers and a conveyor belt quickly envelop creamy, magenta-colored pops in cellophane before they’re neatly tucked into boxes, taped shut, stamped and carried back to the freezer.
On the other side of the kitchen, two large machines surround stainless steel molds in a circulating glycol bath that looks like a giant vat of cheap shampoo. Between packaging sessions, the filled molds are submersed in a bath and in as little as 15 minutes, another round of pops is created.
It’s the lightning-quick freeze that makes these treats such a pleasure to consume. When ice pops freeze slowly at higher temperatures, large ice crystals form, lending a sharp, harsh mouthfeel that will leave you with what feels like a cat’s tongue. Steel City’s pops, on the other hand, set up so quickly large crystals don’t have time to form. Watkins won’t disclose the temperature, but it would make a residential freezer seem balmy, and the result is a velvety texture that melts gently and evenly, blanketing the mouth in a soft slick of flavors that can be absolutely hypnotizing.
Customers approach a menu divided into creamy and fruity sections, and either will change your understanding of what an ice pop should be. Buttermilk evokes a tangy cheesecake made of satin, and avocado, though the unsettling color of guacamole, smacks of lime and is equally refreshing. Peanut butter slowly melts away like a cherished summer memory and the sour cream and cherry pairs a familiar sweetness with an unexpected tang. Fruity pops offer household flavors like strawberry and lemonade, while blueberries are reinvented with basil, pineapple is given a subtle kiss from jalapeño and cucumber and lime taste like a cool, spring breeze even on the hottest of days.
And it’s heat that everyone is racing out on the sidewalks. While the line continues to build (it has wrapped around the block on occasion), customers everywhere clutch sticks desperately trying to avoid the ultimate affront. Whether 4 years old or 40, nothing is more gutting than watching a Steel City pop shear from its stick prematurely, tumbling to the pavement where it’s quickly reduced to a thick puddle of syrupy goo. This summer there’s a smorgasbord for the bees and ants that live within buzzing distance of Greenville Avenue.
And maybe that’s the other reason these pops are so popular, soon to rival the cupcake craze that took over years ago: Beyond luxurious textures and exotic flavors, an ice pop is the great chronological equalizer. Children, their parents and other adults walk through Steel City’s front door one age, but they all walk out an average of 7. Clutch a pop stick in your hand and embrace all the happy parts of your past with sticky fingertips. Just make sure you grab a napkin.
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