The cempasúchil, flame-colored marigolds that the Aztecs once used to honor a goddess of death, are inescapable in Mexico City each October. Millions of the blossoms make their way into garlands in preparation for Día de los Muertos. On November 1, most of these fragrant flowers will wind up on the graves of loved ones. But each year, a few are set aside for a very different purpose: ice cream.
“It tastes almost like you mixed chamomile with vanilla,” says José Luis Cervantes, the owner of Joe Gelato. Each year, he dries the petals, then grinds them up into a powder and puts them in milk to infuse it. Once churned and frozen, the resulting scoop has a color that ranges from pale gold to ivory. “It depends what week you’re getting the flower. The closer it gets to the Day of the Dead, it gives more of a yellow color,” says Cervantes.
Cervantes has picked up a fiercely devoted following since setting up shop in the Juárez neighborhood in 2018. Though he cut his teeth as a chef at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, these days his focus is all on the sweet stuff. “I eat, breathe, and sleep gelato,” he says. “It’s thanks to the whole community in Juárez that I’m where I am today.”
Although he picked up some of his skills at Italy’s Carpigiani Gelato University, many of the flavors here are nothing like what you might find in that country. “I try to make sure at least 80 percent of what we use here is local,” Cervantes says. Flavors vary to reflect the season and the produce available in local markets.
On any given day, the unconventional lineup might include peach with sal de gusano (worm salt), tamarind and mezcal, the herb hoja santa, black garlic, or Oaxacan chocolate with guajillo or ancho chiles. For flavors incorporating stouts, lagers, and ales, Cervantes turns to local craft microbrewery Monstruo de Agua Cervecería. A dark, dairy-free, cacao ice cream and a rich, fruity olive oil ice cream are two of the only constant menu items.
Cervantes works with small batches, and he’s not afraid to get experimental—fans know to keep an eye out for the black garlic when it appears on the menu. “It’s slow-cooked until it’s caramelized and that gives it that sort of dulce de leche flavor,” says Cervantes, who uses a rice cooker for the process. “It takes about two weeks to get to that point of black garlic. It’s a really good gelato.”
Know Before You Go
Joe Gelato generously lets customers ask for up to three flavors in their small cone or cup. They are closed on Mondays.