The Boss of Popsicles

Fabian Leon’s Mexican snack shop offers sweet treats not found anywhere else in lower Alabama. MB chilled out with the big boss to learn more.

strawberry popsicle against an orange background
Jefe Paletas

Where did you get the idea for Jefe Paletas? 

Mexico has these awesome snack shops called heladerias or fruiteries, and they aren’t in the tourist areas. Basically, they have agaua frescas, popsicles, ice cream and salty snacks. They are a place where families can meet, a place of peace and happiness that’s handmade and artisanal, something you can value.

What would you eat there?

One of my favorites as a child was fresas con crema. It’s cut up strawberries topped with heavy cream made from condensed milk. Now we serve it here. I make the cream in-house, and add granola and whipped cream. It’s so simple, but so good.

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Jefe Paletas owner Fabian Leon
“I had those doubts— should I open this place, or should I stay comfortable at my parents’ restaurant? But having a snack bar makes me happy and gives me peace.” Fabian Leon, owner Jefe paletas

Did you have experience in food?

My four brothers and I grew up in the restaurant business, washing dishes for my parents at their restaurant, La Cocina. So I’ve seen the ups and downs. I always wanted to have a restaurant, and I went to culinary school, but in the end, the Lord pushed me to make more time for family. I wanted a place that had a family environment, where I could bring my kids and where I could honor God. I depend on him a lot. I had those doubts— should I open this place, or should I stay comfortable at my parents’ restaurant? But having a snack bar makes me happy and gives me peace.

How did you wind up in Mobile? 

I was born in 1989 in San Jose de la Paz, Jalisco, on the Pacific, in a town that is known for having a ton of restauranters. It’s a wealthy little town. My parents brought me to the US when I was 6 months old. My dad worked in Atlanta as a line cook, and the opportunity came to open a restaurant in Mobile. He was always scouting for locations, looking for a place without many Mexican restaurants, and there wasn’t much competition in Mobile at the time. He thought it would be a little gold mine, so we came in the early 1990s and he opened El Giro with his brother and two nephews. They started expanding and had three locations at one point.

You say you want this to be a family place. Tell us about yours. 

My wife Viridiana is from la Michoacan, Mexico. We met here in Mobile when I was 11. We started dating when we were 20 and married four years later. Now we have a four-year-old son and one on the way.

Did anyone else help make Jefe Paletas a reality? 

My landlord, David Lord. He is a huge blessing. I signed the lease in 2019, and then when factors kept us from opening, he was so patient. If we had opened right before the pandemic, I am not sure we would have made it. We ended up opening in 2021. 

Does the menu lean more authentic or more American?

The menu is a mix of authentic flavors and things for an American palette. When we first opened, we were looking at the flavors that were getting really popular in Mexico, like chile guajillo, with cream and dried chile peppers with a smoky flavor, but people were unsure about it. The true staple Mexican flavors always do well, though, like arroz con leche, coconut, pecan, strawberry and mango. Those are flavors Americans are familiar with, so they do well, but we also sell s’mores, bubble gum and Oreo. Those are flavors I need to have, too. 

which paleta is your personal favorite? 

Mine is the queso fresco caramel. It’s a vanilla base with queso fresco cheese and a caramel filling. That was inspired by these simple desserts my mom would make us as kids when she had leftover masa dough from making tortillas. Now that we are grown and out of the house, she doesn’t make homemade tortillas much. It’s survival food, super simple, nothing complicated but delicious. 

Anything on the menu most south Alabamians won’t have had before? 

Conchas are a Mexican sweet bread that is a staple in every Mexican household. Mexicans love bread! When I was little, I would dip them in hot chocolate. Here we slice them down the middle, put two scoops of ice cream, whipped cream, fruit and almonds on top… and fudge! And then there’s the Mangonada, which is by far the best seller. It is mango sorbet, chamoy tajin (syrup that tastes like Tajin but is made from pickled apricots), sliced mango, lime and a tamarind straw. Right now, I am making five seven-liter buckets of mango sorbet, we go through it so fast!

And how many paletas?

I can make 700 paletas in a week. This week, I’m sending a big order to the Coast Guard for their family day. When I first opened, it took two days of solid work to make enough paletas to fill the case. We were nervous. We didn’t know what to expect!

Who comes in your shop?

Everyone. We have some ladies of Asian descent who say the avocado popsicles remind them of a treat they ate as a child. I have families who come in after soccer games. On Saturdays and Sundays, the Latino community really comes out. Big family groups come in for a treat and some quality time together. But we are busy all the time. And we are starting to do more birthday parties and other events with our popsicle cart. 

Has anyone had culture shock with your offering?

Not so much the food, but occasionally the name. Jefe (pronounced heff-ay) means boss and a paleta is a popsicle. I’ve had ladies show up asking when the next Pilates class was happening, and plenty of people ask if I am Jeff. I just say no, but I am Jefe! mb

Jefe Paletas • 5301 Cottage Hill Road, Mobile • Open Tue – Sun 11:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.

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