Question: It's hotter than Hades outside right now. Where can I get a dessert to cool off?
Craig LaBan: I hear you, my steamy friend. It's so blistering hot outside now, I don't think I can even do the richness of ice cream. I need a nondairy frozen dessert that's as close to ice as possible — but tastier — and Philly has several exceptional solutions, both classic and novel. Water ice is obviously the ultimate Philly tradition, and I will always go for a neighborhood favorite over a chain like Rita's.
I was in South Philly recently at John's Water Ice (701 Christian St.), where they do all the classics well, but I'm especially partial to subtler specials such as the recent cantaloupe water ice. (Want it boozy? The Saloon nearby, owned by the same family, makes a martini called the Iceberg filled with a scoop of John's lemon water ice.)
>> READ MORE: Craig LaBan's favorite Philadelphia classic foods
The insider favorite for East Passyunkers is the ultimate old-school lemon ice (filled with bits of rind) at Lucio Mancuso & Son (1902 E. Passyunk Ave.), where Phil Mancuso also makes an excellent chocolate-flavored ice. The lucky members of exclusive Palizzi Social Club can now get a taste of chef Joey Baldino's hand-shaved ice infused with pureed fruits of the moment served in retro style (this week: pineapple and coconut).
Far more accessible than Palizzi and perfect for a post-Phillies treat near the stadiums, meanwhile, my other preferred stop is Pop's Homemade Italian Ice (1337 W. Oregon Ave.), where the Italiano family has been serving natural, juice-flavored ices since the original "Pop," Filippo Italiano, set up a pushcart in Marconi Plaza during the Great Depression. Try the mango, peach, black cherry, or patriotic "gelati" (blueberry and cherry ices with vanilla custard) that the current "Pop," Philip Italiano, created in honor of the Democratic National Convention.
Philly's frozen treats go well beyond water ice these days. The Lil' Pop Shop in both West Philly (265 S. 44th St.) and Rittenhouse (229. S. 20th St.) has mastered the new-age Popsicle with fresh-fruit infusions of whole raspberries and lime, or coconut milk with hibiscus. Funky Little Baby's Ice Cream, which now has four locations across town, has a nondairy blueberry lemonade that is the definition of quenching. Cutting-edge contemporary restaurants such as Cadence (161 W. Girard Ave.) are riffing fancy off the Asian "shave ice" tradition by creating snow from frozen oat milk and layering it with all manner of seasonal syrups (rhubarb), fresh fruit, dehydrated berries, crystallized sesame, and house-made granola for crunch. It's fascinating, if not always sweet enough for some.
There are plenty of spots to sample some more traditional Asian ice desserts, such as the Malaysian "ABC" at Penang (117 N 10th St.) in Chinatown, a veritable mountain of shaved ice streaked with red rose syrup and condensed milk, hiding chewy red beans, corn, plum seeds, and jellies near the bottom. Penang was one of Chinatown's first sweet-ice purveyors, but a new wave of Chinese dessert makers has brought a sweet chill to town in recent years. My current favorite is the Taiwanese shaved-ice specialist Winterfell (32 S. 40th St.) in University City, where blocks of flavored ice (strawberry; green tea; black sesame) are spun into colorful snowdrifts of frozen fluff, then topped with a myriad of chewy delights (glass jelly, mochi), fruits, crunchies, and sweet sauces.
The Boba & Co. truck in South Philly's Cambodia Town (600 W. Moyamensing Ave.) has an array of tropical Southeast Asian refreshers, such as durian shakes (Return of the King is for advanced durian aficionados only), Thai tea frappes, or cold fruit drinks blended with fresh-squeezed sugar cane. The Mexican paleta shops of South Philly, meanwhile, are also not to be denied. At La Guerrerense (1143 S. Ninth St.), you can taste sample tropical flavors including tamarind, gansito "Mexican twinkies," chile-marbled mango pops and, yes, even a scoop of ice cream that tastes like margarita.
Extreme weather, though, calls for extreme measures. And there may be no frozen dessert in the city with more intensity than the "chamoyada" at Paletas Y Helados Bambino just across the street (1142 S. Ninth St.), where the tart mango slushies are drizzled with a vivid red chamoy sauce that is simultaneously salty, sour, sweet, and spicy. Take it to the next level with a chewy and tart tamarind candy straw, which will add some salsa swagger to your brain freeze, and, perhaps, make you forget for just a moment how hot it is outside.