Photo by Tommy Feisel

Westside Wonkaville

What could be more American than ice cream—or more Columbus than unexpected combinations like Blackberry and Cheese, Goat Milk Caramel, or Chocolate-Covered Strawberry Sponge Cake?

Ricardo Sandoval is the Westside’s own Willy Wonka, and Dulce Vida is his fabled factory. At least, that’s the plan for the local ice cream entrepreneur whose journey is as American as his flavors are authentic to his childhood homeland.

Opening amid minimal fuss late last year, the traditional Mexican paleteria is already poised to expand to two additional locations in Columbus, and is positioning for a push to new markets in the near future.

“You see this type of ice cream throughout Mexico, but this kind originated in Michoacán,” Sandoval explained, noting that companies like Unilever and Nestle operate extensively in Mexico, but don’t use the same quality of ingredients as family-owned shops. “If you order their ice cream, you won’t get a chunk of strawberry or mango. You get concentrates at best, or artificial flavors—fake flavors.”

Sandoval and his business partners researched similar shops in Chicago before deciding to bring the concept to Ohio. The prevalence of Mexican immigrants, and businesses that serve them, put West Broad Street on the map as an initial location—but Cleveland Avenue and East Main Street offer similar clientele and potential for the next two locations. The owners are also scouting Toledo, hoping to have a dozen regional locations within the next three years.

“Not so long ago, you might find one Mexican restaurant in a town; now you can find several. We really think it’s going to be a lot like that with Mexican ice cream,” Sandoval said. “Our concept is designed to be a franchise model based in Columbus. We plan to build the company here and expand the same way Mexican restaurants did throughout the Midwest.”

Dulce Vida’s ice cream is made with 18 percent butterfat, creating a density that is more decadent than most fans of American ice cream may expect.

The flavors are also more complex than simply sweet— like the saltiness of the Cojita in the Queso Con Zarzamora (Blackberry and Cheese), the tang of the goat milk in the Cajetoso (Caramel), or the vaguely familiar Gansito (named for the Mexican snack cake that is a lot like a Twinkie, but with strawberry and cream filling, then dipped in chocolate).

But they offer more than just ice cream, like Paletas (fresh fruit popsicles surrounded by milk or sweetened syrup) and Aguas Frescas (the frozen drink cousin of the paletas in similar flavors). For something decidedly different, try the Mangonadas—layers of mango sorbet and fresh cubed mango mixed with savory chamoy sauce and stick of tart tamarind.

“Our Mexican customers already know most of our flavors and understand our business, so we’re slowly starting to reach out to those who don’t,” he noted, as well as the recent addition of English translations for most of the menu. “People from other countries are willing to try new things. Tropical fruits like nanche aren’t commonly found in ice cream, and our pine nut is very popular. But our Asian and African customers especially are open to new flavors.”

Sandoval’s own story is as inspired as his ice cream. Having immigrated to Ohio as a teenager to work for the same tomato farm his father had for three decades, he quickly moved from the field to the factory—cooking and canning tomatoes and learning English along the way. The University of Findley’s hospitality management major eventually offered the acumen and insight to match Sandoval’s ambition and initiative.

His Mexican roots and market research made the selection of Columbus obvious, but no less ironic. The temperance movement was also born locally, long before prohibition. The Anti-Saloon League of America established their headquarters here in 1909, still celebrated by a small plaque in the back of the Dairy Queen in downtown Westerville—that’s also no coincidence. Among their less incendiary initiatives (prohibitionists blew up the only bar in town, twice), the organization also promoted “dairy bars” as a more moral alternative to the pub with a religious fervor. There’s actually history behind Ohio’s preponderance of ice cream parlors and persistence of laws limiting Sunday sales of alcohol.

Aside from Ohio’s lingering fixation with frozen confections, there’s also a cultural component to Dulce Vida’s brisk weekend business. The lulls that leave the former HoneyBaked Ham location almost empty midweek are offset by a line that winds out the door, particularly on Sundays. It’s a faithful ritual that illustrates the multi-generational appeal and allure of gathering together with extended family for something so simple as an afternoon ice cream. Parents and grandparents clamor to share the nostalgia with their children and grandchildren in a setting that looks and feels like someone took an authentic Mexican paleteria from their own youth and transported it to central Ohio.

“When we hire teenagers from the neighborhood who came here when they were so little, they don’t have many memories of Mexico,” Sandoval explained. “When they work here, when their friends and family come here, we’re reconnecting them to a small part of their culture, right here in Columbus.”