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Benjamin Garduno and Gloria Sendejo (holding baby Oliver) with daughter Marissa and son Alex.

A Paleteria on Platt Rd.

Cherry Bee's becomes La Pina Loca.

by Sabine Bickford

From the March, 2019 issue

Benjamin Garduno says he and his wife, Gloria Sendejo, didn't need to change much when they took over the former Cherry Bee's in January. The three-year-old froyo shop was fully equipped, needing only new ingredients and recipes to reopen as La Pina Loca, Ann Arbor's first Mexican paleteria.

For a shop selling frozen treats in midwinter, business has been surprisingly good. On Michigan's coldest day this century, a small but steady stream of customers walked through the doors to try spicy mangonadas and strawberries-and-cream paletas.

Many of the brightly colored offerings boldly combine sweet fruit flavors with red pepper spice. The mangonada is a sweet icy mango smoothie with red hot sauce, spicy chili powder, and Mexican tamarind candy wrapped around a colorful straw. The signature pina loca is an entire half of a pineapple filled with chunks of fruit, savory chamoy sauce, gummy candies, tamarind candy, and hot sauce.

"Last year, when we were thinking about opening a business, we were thinking about a name," says Garduno. "What would be the perfect name? A lot of places like this, they have either a town name or the people's name, and one day we were eating pineapple at home and I said, 'why don't we call it Crazy Pineapple?'"

If spicy isn't your thing, La Pina offers a selection of Mexican ice cream and twenty-five flavors of paletas (popsicles). There is also fresas con crema a parfait made with fresh strawberries and cream--and, at La Pina Loca, also with coconut and granola. "I think it's a nice, healthy thing," says Garduno.

Invented by street vendors, "dori locos" have taken Mexico by storm since the 2000s. A cousin of the state-fair staple "walking taco," it's made by cutting the top off of a bag of Doritos, then adding a variety of ingredients to the improvised bowl. Pina Loca's version has peanuts, hot sauce, cueritos (pickled pork skins), and jalapenos, and can be customized from there. They also offer variations made

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with Hot Cheetos and spicy Mexican Takis chips. Other savory options include tamales and esquites, a Mexican street dish made with corn, butter, cream, queso fresco, and chili powder.

Garduno says a lot of these dishes weren't around when he last lived in Mexico in the early 2000s. He thinks a lot of them came from carnivals, where vendors would serve customers any ingredients they asked for, and he's since seen them on return trips to his hometown of Toluca. He and Sendejo (an Iowan with Mexican heritage) started hearing about them from friends in the Latino community. Often people would post pictures of their creations on social media.

Garduno and Sendejo met while working at Los Amigos, the Mexican restaurant near Briarwood. "I was a manager, and she was one of the servers," he says with a big smile. They continued working there after their marriage, and Sendejo began experimenting with sweet-and-spicy desserts at home. She would try them out on weekends with their friends and coworkers--who had even more suggestions for dishes.

At the time, Garduno explains, people had "to drive out to Detroit just to get this stuff. They kept asking, 'why don't you sell this kind of thing?'"

So Sendejo started catering events on the weekends for friends and then friends of friends. "Sometimes at my break time at the restaurant I used to cook the food up there and put it all together for her," says Garduno.

As the popularity of Sendejo's creations grew, the couple left their jobs with plans to open a paleteria in Ypsilanti. But Garduno says they never got off the ground due to disputes with a contractor. When their neighbor, Lan City Noodle, offered to buy out their lease, they cut their losses and moved on.

Meanwhile Ehab Samaha was finding that his own venture, Cherry Bee's, was not faring well in the winter weather. Garduno spotted his "for lease" sign while driving the couple's two children to school at Mitchell Elementary. Samaha sold them everything in the restaurant, and Garduno says they thought it was all perfect. The red-and-green walls and matching furniture correspond with the colors of the Mexican flag. Their main addition is a banner of colorful Mexican papel picado flags and the large visual menu behind the counter.

Garduno says he and Sendejo expected their friends and the larger Latino community to support them, and they have--"we've seen the same six or seven people coming in every day since we opened." But "it's not just Hispanic or Latino communities that stop by," he notes. He says customers of Arabic, European, and Asian heritage have all tried La Pina Loca--and often returned with friends. They're also getting people who discovered paleterias on Mexican vacations and are glad to see one here.

"The good thing about living in Ann Arbor is that we have different types of people, you know, different nationalities," he says. "We have a different mix. It feels good!"

Garduno admits that non-Latinos find the sweet-and-spicy combinations unfamiliar. "The first time, they think it'll be no good," he says. "But they try it and they say 'oh my God, that's good!'"

La Pina Loca, 3980 Platt Rd. (734) 929-5487. Daily noon-9 p.m.
    (end of article)

[Originally published in March, 2019.]


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