From Mexico To Chicago, The Story Behind “La Michoacana” Ice Cream Shops

There are dozens of ice cream shops in Chicago with “La Michoacana” in their name, but many have different owners, offerings and prices.

Curious City La Michoacana
Maggie Sivit / WBEZ
Curious City La Michoacana
Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

From Mexico To Chicago, The Story Behind “La Michoacana” Ice Cream Shops

There are dozens of ice cream shops in Chicago with “La Michoacana” in their name, but many have different owners, offerings and prices.

Local vendors have been selling Mexican popsicles known as paletas from rolling carts in Chicago for decades.

But over the last ten years, elaborate standalone ice cream shops with paletas, fruit cups and salty snacks like salchipulpos have sprung up all over the city and suburbs. And dozens of them feature the words “La Michoacana” or “Michoacán” in their name.

Question-asker Emily Weseman noticed this as she was searching the internet for an ice cream shop in her neighborhood. So she asked Curious City: Why are there so many different ice cream places in Chicago called “Michoacana”? Are they related to each other?

The short answer: Chicago’s got dozens of ice cream shops with the “La Michoacana” name, but the shops have different owners, different offerings and even different prices.

What we found was the name stems from the state in Mexico where the first paleta makers are said to come from — specifically, a small town in Michoacán called Tocumbo, where a statue of a giant paleta meets visitors as they drive in.

Paleta Monument Tocumbo Mexico
In Tocumbo, Mexico, a monument of a giant paleta greets everyone who enters the town. K Orange Red MX / Wikimedia Commons
Journalist and author Sam Quinones chronicled the rise of “popsicle kings” from Tocumbo in his book True Tales from Another Mexico as well as in this article for the Baltimore Sun. He notes the original paleta makers started opening successful La Michoacana ice cream shops in Mexico City in the 1940s. They passed on their popsicle knowledge, loans and even the name to their relatives and fellow Tocumbans, who set up their own independent shops all over Mexico.

Selena Maria Daniels, journalist and co-founder of Tostada magazine, found the copycat names started causing legal problems when the shops hit the U.S. in the 1990s. She documented the fight over the La Michoacana name in this 2019 Eater story. Basically, the niece of one of the original paleta makers from Tocumbo started an ice cream business in Mexico, and registered the logo and several variations of the La Michoacana name with the patent office there. She has since approached the U.S. Patent and Trademark office asking to have U.S. rival Paleteria La Michoacana’s patent canceled — claiming she wants to sell products rooted in her family’s history, and copycats are profiting off of that history unfairly.

Daniels said litigation was still ongoing and “the jury was still out, so to speak.” Curious City has left multiple messages with the lawyers and companies involved in the suit but did not get a response.

What we do know is that dozens of shops in the Chicago area are still using variations of the “La Michoacana” name.

One chain that goes by the name La Michoacana Premium was founded right here in the Chicago area, in the western suburb of Aurora. It now has 20 shops in Illinois and 50 others across seven states, and claims to have direct ties to at least one popsicle-making ancestor from Tocumbo.

So 80 years after the first popsicle maker opened an ice cream shop with La Michoacana in its name, the name has come to signify not so much a single company as a single type of ice cream shop: full of paletas, fruit-laden ice cream treats and savory snacks like Cheetos con queso and Dorilocos.

More about our question asker

Curious City Michoacana Questioner
Monica Eng / WBEZ

Emily Weseman is a Chicago-area real estate professional who was born and raised in Wrigleyville. Today, she lives in Old Irving Park with her husband and two young children.

After she heard the story behind the La Michoacana ice cream shops — and how they proliferated with similar names but no central ownership or regulation — she thought of an analogy.

“It’s similar to all the hot dog stands in Detroit with ‘Coney Island’ in their name,” Emily said, referring to the dozens of restaurants outside of New York that use the “Coney Island” moniker. They’re not all related, but they tend to have similar menus featuring hot dogs with meaty toppings and bowls of chili.

When she’s not thinking about Chicago food mysteries, Emily says she likes to hang out with her kids, “go to the park, go for walks in the North Park Village Nature Center and eat ice cream all summer long.”

Monica Eng is a journalist living in Chicago. Follow her at @monicaeng