IRVING PARK — With temperatures expected to hit 90 degrees in the coming days, the time is ripe for a trip to Alaska.
Alaska Paleteria y Neveria, that is.
The Irving Park ice cream shop (neveria in Spanish) opened in April 2012 at 3446 W. Irving Park Road as a Latino alternative to the neighborhood Baskin-Robbins.
Silvia Fernandez, who owns the shop with husband Bolivar, was born in Chicago but raised in Mexico. By the time she returned to the U.S. as a teenager, she'd grown accustomed to paletas (Mexican fruit popsicles) and had developed a completely different sweets palette.
"There was no ice cream store where you could find those unusual flavors," said Fernandez, who lives just blocks from the shop. "It was pretty much an idea to have something else."
At Alaska, three-gallon tubs of American standbys like Oreo and vanilla sit side by side in the freezer case with pine nut, piña colada, avocado, chongos zamoranos (sweet milk curd with cinnamon) and Gansito, which incorporates a Mexican snack cake.
Mango is the runaway top seller, thanks in part to Alaska's most-ordered treat, the vampiros (vampire), a concoction of mango sorbet, blood-red vegetable sauce and a heaping pile of chopped mango.
"It's fresh, it's light, I like the spiciness, I like the sourness," said customer Mar Flores, a self-described foodie and recent transplant to Albany Park from Elgin. "I'm Hispanic, I grew up on that."
The Fernandezes make all of the shop's paletas and ice creams themselves, and in the spirit of authenticity, Silvia traveled to Mexico to study with the masters.
Family and friends scoured the country for a shop owner willing to take on an apprentice.
"One lucky day, we found someone," said Fernandez, who spent a week of 10-hour days learning the craft.
"Oh my god, it's a lot of work," she said.
But instantly rewarding.
"Our first paletas, they looked so pretty. We were showing our friends our freezer full of paletas, they couldn't believe it. Who would have thought, us paleteros?" she said.
Partly to maintain quality, partly due to a lack of freezer space, Alaska's ice creams are made in small batches, no more than six gallons at time. Some flavors, like the popular mango, are mixed daily.
Favorable word of mouth has pulled in customers well beyond the expected Latino base.
"It's a mix, about 50-50 Latino and white," Fernandez said. "Almost every day there's new people coming."
In fact, Bolivar Fernandez chose "Alaska" for its broad appeal, as opposed to most paleterias that tend to incorporate Michoacan into their names. "He wanted something not so Mexican," said his wife.
After trying her hand at a number of jobs — hairstylist, daycare provider, H&R Block tax preparer — Fernandez seems to have found her true calling in ice cream.
"I think I'm a creative person, since I was a little kid," she said. "I have so many ideas in my head."
One of those ideas, for a strawberry cheesecake ice cream, is now one of Alaska's best sellers.
"You know the basics," she said. "You just try adding ingredients. The first time, it's not right. The second time you say, 'We need to put more of this, not too much of that.'"
For Fernandez to pull more of those ideas out of her head — tequila, Kahlua and even an ice cream based on Mexican egg nog — she needs more room.
"People keep asking for more space for parties," Fernandez said. "We could offer more products."
Which is why, barely a year after opening their first shop, the couple has already inked a lease to expand to a second Alaska location on Lawrence Avenue, just west of Kedzie.
"My little girl said, 'Why are we opening another one?' It means less time with them," said the mother of two. "That's one of the things we've had to sacrifice."
While Bolivar builds out the new store in his free time — he also works construction — Silvia holds down the fort at the original shop seven days a week scooping cones, whipping up milkshakes, dicing fruit, setting up the outdoor patio and managing supplies.
"There's so many things to do here. I don't think any other person I know would handle what I handle — it's too much work, too much stress," she said.
But ultimately worthwhile.
"My husband, he would look at people and say, 'I can't believe they're eating what we're making.'"