In my sad-sustenance universe, deep-fried food is the ultimate. It is cuisine par excellence. It makes the non-edible edible. I truly believe a magical layer of light flaky crust will coat everything in heaven. But when I first heard mention of “fried ice cream,” I’ll admit that the image that came to my mind was a sad, soggy, rainbow-colored omelette of sorts, maybe dried up a little around the edges. The very words made no sense.
That conversation might have been about Chi Chi’s, the national Mexican-themed restaurant chain that had once been a crown jewel on Route 161, Columbus’ main food strip during the ’80s and ’90s. Founded near Minneapolis, Chi Chi’s became responsible for the word “salsafication,” and the idea that Mexicans did some crazy sh*t to ice cream.
My rainbow omelette image was replaced when someone explained to me that the “fried” part of fried ice cream was just a crispy coating on a regular ball of ice cream. “It’s not fried, Laura,” she explained. “I mean c’mon. It would melt. That’s basic science!”
Of course it would. So I blew off fried ice cream as some strange urban legend until I recently spoke with a friend who had waited tables at Chi Chi’s in the early ’90s. She explained that aside from wearing a low-cut ruffle blouse, dipping frozen ice cream balls in hot oil was her least favorite part of the job.
“It was actually fried?” I exclaim. “I thought that was just a joke. Because, you know, science.” She assures me the attempt was real. “But it’s not like any of us knew what we were doing.”
That ineptitude was perhaps an eventual contributing factor to a large and unfortunate episode with Hepatitis A that caused Chi Chi’s to shutter its bright, folkloric doors in 2004. And I regrettably missed out on fried ice cream, simply because I had not believed hard enough.
According to a friend who grew up in Ada, Ohio and claimed to regularly enjoy the treat as a kid, I really missed out on fried ice cream. His description of this delicacy cannot truly be verbalized—mostly because he didn’t use words. He simply closed his eyes to summon the past and forcefully exhaled. It was like a primal groan of someone who had just hit his ice cream bliss point.
Most of what I had been told in words about fried ice cream had been rubbish, so the primal groan struck me as truth, about both its existence and its effect on the soul. I was at that moment determined to find this paradoxical combination of hot and cold, crispy and creamy. The name itself seemed to suggest a confection that should, or must, be eaten as quickly as possible. And if it could be found in northwest Ohio, I was sure I would be able to find it in Columbus.
Between texting a friend with native-speaking Spanish contacts and searching the Internet, I start creating a list of possibilities. My list consisted mostly of the large number of Hispanic restaurants on Columbus’ west side, several of which have full ice cream parlors serving paletas (fresh fruit ice pops), sundaes, and milkshakes. Mexicans take their ice cream seriously (both vanilla and chocolate are quintessentially Mesoamerican products), and their sorbets even more seriously because of the variety and quality of fresh fruit available in Mexico. Some flavors are enhanced with chiles or other spices (which should satisfy a normal person’s taste for ice cream with heat). After sampling a delectable lemon-lime/leche descremada sorbet combo at a shop, it seems a bit ungrateful to ask the owner where I can find the deep-fried version.
Instead, I ask a friend whose wife is from Mexico. His response is, “Didn’t Chi Chi’s just make that up?” At this point, I admit it’s entirely possible, that I am just chasing the signature dessert of an ethnic knockoff chain that succumbed to infectious disease. But finally, I locate fried ice cream on the menu of Fiesta Mariachi, a self-described local “authentic Mexican cantina” and give them a call.
“I see you have fried ice cream on your menu,” I inquire, trying not to sound like the health inspector. “Is it actually deep fried? That’s not just a special flavor?”
“It’s fried,” says the host. “That’s why it’s called fried ice cream.”
That’s a good enough description for me. A couple evenings later, I settle in a booth at Fiesta Mariachi with a mango margarita, chips, and queso dip. I ask my server for her description of the ice cream. She tells me about the cornflake coating, the honey, and the deep-fried tortilla shell.
Wait a minute. Deep-fried tortilla shell?
“You mean the ice cream itself isn’t deep fried?” I’m crestfallen, at what might be yet another ice cream rumor popping like bubbles in hot oil.
“That’s the way it’s supposed to be done, but people don’t really like it that way.” She shakes her head as if to say “Lo que sea.” (Translation: Whatever.)
“I want you to deep fry my ice cream,” I say a little too firmly. “The way it’s supposed to be done.”
She returns with my custom-made ice cream, coated in a golden bubbly glaze and topped with whipped cream, chocolate syrup, and a few sprinkles. A sort of crème brûlée, cinnamon tortilla mix, it’s not exactly what I had imagined, but I don’t have time to think before I attack this monster with a spoon. It becomes fantastically messy in about 45 seconds, a beautiful and super sticky, no-ice-cream-headache pool of creamy vanilla, chocolate sauce, and corn flakes eventually dwindling down to just the bright red cherry. And in slightly over a minute, my deep-fried ice cream search is over, leaving behind some extra whipped cream, a bit of soggy tortilla, a renewed sense of belief, and absolutely no regrets.