Mexico City is probably not the first place one thinks of when it comes to ice cream. Enchiladas and tacos, sure, but ice cream? In fact, the city has quite an established ice cream scene, with spots in nearly every neighborhood. La Especial de París, an ice cream parlor on the edge of Colonia San Rafael, stands out as a family-owned venue that – unlike many of its competitors, which have increasingly turned to selling mass-produced dairy products – still makes all its ice cream the old-fashioned way, by hand and with fresh, all-natural ingredients.
La Especial was founded by Vicente Lozada in 1921 as a small street stand selling homemade helados, or ice creams. When Avenida Insurgentes was widened in 1942, the owners moved La Especial to its current home in a nearby building. Like many eateries in Mexico City, La Especial has remained in the same family during its 91-year history, and some of its employees have been there for a very long time – one older gentleman has seen three generations of the family pass through during his tenure.
As when it first opened, today La Especial continues to make artisanal Mexican ice creams with real fruit and flavorings, based on the same family recipes that were used at the original street stand. Just like the recipes, the décor at La Especial doesn’t appear to have changed much over the years. The pale green walls, neon signage and long counter topped with old blenders and glassware give customers entering the small shop the feeling of stepping back in time, as if a 1960s-era soda jerk in a crisp white uniform could appear at any moment, fling a few scoops of dairy delight into a tall glass and shoot it down the counter.
Our first visit to La Especial was around midday and we were the only customers. At busier times of the day, however, the place fills with happy families and couples – a scene little changed from how the venue must have appeared half a century ago – and seating can be hard to come by, as there are only about a half-dozen tables.
Taking advantage of the calm and quiet, we asked for a recommendation and got the simplest of answers: vanilla. Turns out that old standby is La Especial’s most famous flavor and has been so since the venue’s founding; indeed, the vanilla alone is known to draw loyal customers from across the city. We quickly understood why: the small bowl we ordered was exquisitely creamy, with a strong, but not overpowering, flavor of real vanilla. The cajeta, which is similar to caramel and typically made from goat’s milk, was, like the vanilla, deliciously rich in flavor, though not quite as creamy. Finally, we sampled the cheese flavor, made with queso doble crema (double cream cheese), which had a mild, sweet taste similar to that of plain cheesecake.
With the three flavors down, our sweet tooth was sated. We would have to wait for our next visit to try the other traditional standards like chocolate and strawberry, along with more uncommon flavors that include pistachio, walnut, mint, mango and lime.
Though the ice cream surely doesn’t need to be improved upon, La Especial also offers more elaborate frozen treats, including Italian ice, sundaes, floats, and ice cream with fruit. After nearly a century in business, even a place whose claim to fame is a humble scoop of vanilla ice cream knows it needs to keep up with the times.