Juan Antonio’s family has been making Oaxacan-style ice cream since 1940. He explains that it’s a style of ice cream using fresh fruit from the region such as mamey, soursop and dragon fruit, but his specialty is the leche quemada or burnt milk flavor that his grandma was known for in Mexico.
He remembers in his hometown of Tlacolula de Matamoros in the southern Mexican state, his grandmother teaching him to make this family delicacy. “In Oaxaca, back in the day, there weren’t many modes of transport so my grandparents used burros and carts and they went walking to the neighboring towns. A two or three hour walk selling their products. Throughout the years we grew up around that business and they taught us about it.”
Eventually, Antonio moved to Los Angeles where he worked various restaurant jobs. One day, a fellow Oaxacan—knowing he knew how to make ice cream from back home—asked him to make the dessert for a family party. The ice cream was a hit, and Antonio realized he should utilize the legacy and knowledge his grandmother left him.
He started selling his ice cream on weekends door-to-door with his wife and children, while maintaining a restaurant job during the week. When his ice cream grew in popularity, he dedicated himself full time and opened, “Oaxacalifornia,” a stand located in Mercado la Paloma that specializes in his vast array of ice cream flavors, as well as Oaxacan food like tortas, mole, and clayudas.
He feels he owes his success to his grandmother, who instilled in him a business sense and taught him to make his specialty.
“When I first started as I kid I used to get embarrassed selling,” he recalls. “But she pushed us and she lead us with her example. She talked to the people and served them and it was a valuable lesson for me.”
Antonio also credits his wife and children, who have stood by his side putting in long hours ensuring the success of the business. “I’m thankful to life for this opportunity to be here and to be where we are with my family, with my wife and kids—that thanks to them since they were little they motivated us to give them a better life. They propelled us to find the way to give them more.”
As for the importance of abuelitas, he says, “It’s an important figure, they’re like pillars of where we come from. We always carry them in our hearts and remember them.”
This series explores how chefs cooking regional Mexican cuisine in Los Angeles are influenced by their abuelitas, testifying to the importance of ancestors in preserving Mexican heritage at home and abroad.