TAMPA — Sometimes, on a hot, sunny day, when my shirt collar wilts and the clouds pile high in the afternoon sky, I develop a hankering for a good mamey milkshake, a banana split or possibly something creamy with passion fruit, made by Alfredo Naranjo at his hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Snack City.
Señor Naranjo, 75, takes ice cream as seriously as he takes politics. He hates frozen yogurt and low-fat ice cream ("They cannot be considered ice cream," he says in English) just as he hates what Castro did to his native Cuba.
Señor Naranjo is not a tyrant, though it is important to use discretion while ordering. Eye contact is allowed, even encouraged, but don't tempt a "No ice cream for you!" fate by speaking ignorantly.
For example, don't mention a trip to Cuba when Castro is dead.
"That sounds to me, beg your pardon, somewhat stupid,'' he says, eyeing the mamey shake his customer, suddenly pale, is slowly draining.
"What does it matter when Fidel is gone?'' he asks, and for a suspenseful moment Señor Naranjo looks as if he might take back the milkshake.
"Fidel appointed Raul, did he not? Raul is a dictator, is he not? Raul will not be running a democracy. I believe that traveling to Cuba when the government remains in Communist control is an unpatriotic thing to do.''
"Do you want to know why my ice cream is so good?'' Señor Naranjo asks in English. We have both recovered from the faux pas.
Curious, I lean over the counter to hear.
He waves his rough "I work for a living" hands in my face.
"Everything is handmade,'' he says. "With these hands. This is why a brand like Haagen-Dazs cannot possibly be as good. I pick out the fruit for my ice cream myself at the market. I get my ingredients ready. Then I start the machine. I add the rock salt and the sugar and the cream by hand. Every few minutes, I stop the machine, and with this little spoon I taste the ice cream with my mouth. It is not a simple thing, because every kind of ice cream is different.
"There is no computer or piece of paper that has the recipe. It is me, and sometimes my wife, Sylvia, who will taste the ice cream if I have a question. She might say, 'No, a little more sugar, Alfredo' or 'Yes, add a little more cream, Alfredo.' That is how we do it at Snack City.''
Snack City is in a scruffy West Tampa neighborhood. Astonishingly, the restaurant, a former convenience store, is even scruffier inside.
"It is my favorite kind of place, unvarnished by yuppiedom,'' says a regular customer, Andy Huse, the Florida food historian at the University of South Florida.
There is no hostess, no potted fern, no quiet talk, no easy-listening music in the background. Snack City provides a couple of mix-and-match tables and chairs, a floor fan and a portable radio that blasts old-timey music from the islands. Sometimes Señor Naranjo marches from behind the counter, stands between tables and croons along.
His wife Sylvia — they married in 1953 — tells customers her husband sounds like Julio Iglesias.
Finished with his vocals, Señor Naranjo returns to the hefty stack of bananas threatening to bring down the weathered counter.
Snack City sells good Cuban food — Cuban sandwiches, picadillo, beans and rice — at a modest price.
But only a fool leaves without ice cream.
• • •
He has been making the stuff going on half a century.
An attorney in Cuba, he lost his practice after Castro took over. After escaping to New Jersey he wondered what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
English did not come easily to him. With borrowed money he bought a panel truck and sold ice cream to kids on the street.
Ice cream from a factory wasn't bad, but he was sure he could do better. He acquired a book about the art of making ice cream, began experimenting and soon owned a fleet of trucks and an ice cream parlor. Three decades ago, he migrated to Tampa for the heat, the humidity and the mangoes, papayas and guavas hanging from trees. Snack City was born.
He invested $4,000 in a used ice cream machine that by now looks older than he is. Every day it churns out 10 gallons, depending on what kind of fruit he has found that morning at the market. The fuchsia-colored mamey, lush and grainy, is a favorite of Cubans and old-timers from South Florida, though others are willing to sell their firstborn sons for a 1-pound cone ($3.73) of coconut.
Andy Huse, the food historian, always hopes the Emperor of Ice Cream has made his favorite, ginger. While he waits for his order, Huse might listen to a lecture on Latin American politics, the French Revolution, the challenges facing the British Commonwealth, or the failures of liberal politicians in Washington.
Huse hands over $6 and rushes home with a half-gallon. He sautes bananas and apples and adds them to Señor's heavenly concoction.
• • •
Every so often, after an argument with his landlord or bureaucrats, Señor Naranjo swears he is going to close Snack City. "I won't be here long,'' he predicts with a sniff.
But here he is, going strong in the 21st century.
"I am tired a little,'' he admits. "I used to run 14 hours a day while I served my customers. Now I walk more, but I walk fast. I have to feed the people.
"I will tell you something. The people do not get tired of ice cream, even though there is all kinds of propaganda from the government and the pharmaceutical industry and the media about ice cream being bad for you. Listen to me: Ice cream is made from milk.
"Please do not tell me ice cream is unhealthy because I refuse to believe it.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or email@example.com.