Tucked away inside a little market in Fruitvale Village is a small counter-service-only ice cream shop called Nieves Cinco de Mayo. Draped on the wall is a Mexican flag and strings of colorful tissue paper cut into intricate patterns hang from the ceiling. A big chalkboard displays which ice cream flavors are on the menu for the day: corn, spearmint, lemon cream, eggnog, rose petal, cheese and more.
With innovative flavors like these, and with ice cream that is all-natural, fresh and hand-churned in small batches, Nieves Cinco de Mayo is in lock step with the foodie movement but without the pretension or the prices. Nothing on the menu exceeds $3 and a generously sized cone or cup is just $1.50. The coffee ice cream is made from Blue Bottle coffee, the strawberry is made with strawberries straight from the farmers market and some flavors like caramelized milk take hours to prepare.
The flavors are also chosen based on seasonal sourcing and what’s available. “Right now there’s a lot of corn, mangos and strawberries,” says Luis Abundis, owner of Nieves Cinco de Mayo, so he’s making those flavors daily. He never buys fruit and freezes it for later because he says it loses its flavor. For a while, Abundis says he had to stop making his key lime sorbet because prices rose to $80 for one small box and he refused to supplement with other types of citrus. “I don’t like to combine flavors,” he says. “It’s best with one pure flavor.”
Each flavor he makes is created differently depending on the core ingredient. For example, chongos—caramelized milk or “curdled milk”—is made by letting milk boil until it gets a thick top layer. Abundis makes several of these layers of thickened milk then slowly cooks them all together in a pan with cinnamon and brown sugar until it takes on a soft, melty consistency. Using this as a base, he adds milk, cream and eggs to make the ice cream.
None of the flavors are overly milky or sweet; the predominant taste is the base ingredient, which can be subtle or strong depending on the flavor. Chocolate, for example is subtle because Abundis uses cocoa powder as his base, which gives it a malty hot cocoa flavor. Cinnamon, on the other hand, has a strong spicy bite. Rose petal has the distinctive flavor of rose but isn’t overbearing; Abundis says the trick is to cook the petals down to get rid of any bitterness and bring out the aroma.
Abundis also likes to experiment with different fruits and flavors. Once he made star fruit sorbet but said the flavor turned out terribly. But he’s had success with other unconventional flavors, such as garlic, chipotle chili, avocado, horchata and jackfruit. Last week he tested out nopal cactus sorbet for a friend who is diabetic—instead of sugar, he used agave nectar (see recipe below). The flavor turned out to be light, subtle and refreshing, he says.
Originally from a small town near Guadalajara, Mexico, Abundis has made ice cream since he was a kid. “When I was little, my uncle had an ice cream cart,” he says. “And I began to help him churning, churning and churning.” At first, he says, he wasn’t interested in ice cream and just wanted to hang out with his friends, but as he grew older he saw that he had a knack for it.
He moved to Oakland in 1986, when he was 22, and held various jobs cleaning restaurants but was barely earning enough to survive. In 1991, he decided to make a few batches of ice cream and see how they sold during the Fruitvale Cinco de Mayo celebration. “I arrived back home that night, tired with swollen hands and swollen feet, but with my pockets full,” he says. “I earned in that one day what I normally earned in two weeks.”
From that day on, he hasn’t stopped making and selling ice cream and sorbet. First he pushed around an ice cream cart, then he bought a truck and finally he moved into a brick and mortar store. He’s been at his current location in the Fruitvale neighborhood since 2006. Nieves Cinco de Mayo is a family-run business; Abundis’ wife, mother and daughters all help in the shop. They also have a hamburger stand around the corner, which has a full kitchen where they can experiment with their ice cream inventions.
In addition to ice cream and sorbet, Nieves Cinco de Mayo offers all sorts of other frozen treats. There are “raspados,” which are similar to snow cones but Abundis hand-makes all the syrup toppings, like the pecan syrup, which is made from toasted pecans that are slowly cooked in a pan with milk and brown sugar until the liquid gets thick and creamy. For the guava syrup, he blends fresh guavas with a little bit of water until the syrup is the right consistency.
Abundis also sells other slushy drinks called “diablitos,” which are made with shaved ice, chili powder, salt, fresh lime and either slightly sweet mango, pineapple or tamarind syrup. A similar drink is the “Tejuino,” which Abundis says is one of his favorites. For this, he takes fresh corn and ferments it until it germinates, then he cooks the corn with milk, water, and a little bit of brown sugar until it’s thick. He pours this liquid over shaved ice and adds salt and fresh lime. “This is the drink of the gods,” he says.
Nieves Cinco de Mayo is located one block from the Fruitvale BART at 3340 East 12th Street.
Recipe for Nopal Cactus sorbet by Luis Abundis
1 pound nopal with the thorns cut off
33 ounces of agave nectar
2 gallons of water
1. Steam nopal until soft, about five minutes.
2. Blend the nopal in a blender until pureed.
3. Add nopal puree to water and mix in agave nectar.
4. Put the entire mixture in the ice cream maker and churn until done.