Refreshing, cartoonishly large, crazy good. The sandia loca is the Latin Black Tap milkshake.
Imagine an Edible Arrangement on steroids, and you might come close to the glory that is the sandia loca, which means “crazy watermelon” in Spanish. The first time I laid eyes on one was in the Instagram feed of the chef Gerardo Gonzalez, owner of Lalito in New York City and a San Diego native. In a glamour shot of sorts, the blue-eyed chef is seated in a red Formica booth, running one hand through his hair, James Dean style. In front of him is a gargantuan hollowed-out watermelon half stuffed with watermelon spears, cucumber stumps, mango flowers and tamarind straws, all sprinkled with a paprika-red powder and a drippy red sauce. The whole tableau is bizarrely fetching.
“I was with a friend and we sat there eating it for about 20 minutes and didn’t even make a dent,” says Gonzalez of his sandia loca experience at Frutas Locas Pandas in San Diego. This extreme fruit salad is part of a genre of Mexican street foods with the suffix “loco,” which have become popular in parts of Mexico, border towns, Los Angeles, San Diego, and other places in the U.S. where Mexican communities thrive.
The locos that started it all are Tostilocos, a bag of Tostitos chips split along the side, doused in chamoy (a sour sauce made from pickled plums or apricots), peanuts with a crunchy soy-sauce-flavored shell called cacahuates japoneses, chopped mango or jicama, chewy cueritos (pickled pig skin), lime juice, and hot sauce. There are also Dorilocos (made with Doritos), piña loca (pineapple), cocolocos (young coconut)…and the list goes on. What they have in common is a total overload of textures and flavors—the more extreme, the better. “The idea is to be as crazy and outlandish as possible,” says Gonzalez. “It’s like a Latin Black Tap milk shake.”
“This is not a classic thing,” says Fany Gerson, a Mexico City native who runs La Newyorkina, a Mexican frozen-treats shop in New York City. “It’s junky, it’s spicy, it has to have some kind of chile powder, chamoy-type sauce, and a lot of stuff. Some people put three toppings, and some people have ten.” Gerson offers a mango chamoyada at her shop, a slushy fruit cup made with chopped mango, mango sorbet, chamoy sauce, and chile salt, served with a chewy tamarind straw. It’s considered to be part of the extended loca family, as it hits all the same intensely salty-sweet-sour notes. “Chamoyadas can replace nachos when it’s too hot and you’re not craving real food, but you want something to eat that just satisfies you,” says Javier Cabral, a California-based food writer and Mexican-food expert.
The same can be said of sandia loca, which is on my mind as summer approaches. Though I missed my chance to try a version Gonzalez made for a pop-up last year, he recently told me that he had his first East Coast sandia loca sighting in Bushwick, Brooklyn. On a recent Friday afternoon that just happened to be Cinco de Mayo, I took the subway to Leo’s, a taqueria and juice bar on a gentrified block where you can get a pour-over coffee and a tongue taco. Just as Gonzalez had promised, inside were posters advertising the sandia loca. The restaurant was nearly empty, which ended up being a good thing. As I was about to discover, a sandia loca takes time to make.
I watched as the woman who worked there produced a clown car’s worth of fresh fruit—cantaloupe, cucumber, honeydew melon, papaya, pineapple—which she peeled and carved into spears and chunks. Then she hollowed out a half watermelon, transforming it into a bowl that she filled with the fruit, seasoning it with glugs of chamoy and flurries of Tajin as she went. Cacahuates japoneses, a few tamarind straws, and plastic spoons with tamarind paste coating were the finishing touches. The cost? $15.
After I took a few bites, I understood what made this loco, and why Gonzalez made his own chamoy and Tajin—the searing tartness of industrial chamoy and Tajin’s intense sodium burn made the dressed fruit taste like a cross between Doritos and Sour Patch Kids. I wanted to be able to pig out, but between the condiments and the mouth-puckering tamarind straws, the effect was just too caustic, despite the profusion of fresh fruit. People who eat locos are made of stronger stuff than I am. “This was made for the flavor bomb generation,” I recall Cabral telling me. “This is just the newest Mexican version popping up.”