The parcha, or passion fruit, has just arrived at Café Regina from Frutos del Guacabo. This farm serves as a hub on the island of Puerto Rico to bring local fruits and vegetables to restaurants, but this box will be turned into sorbet in the Ocean Park neighborhood coffee shop’s teeny-tiny kitchen by Vía Lactea, an ice-cream-maker serving up scoops and pints alongside the cafés espressos and toasts. What sets Vía Lactea apart from any other local ice creams is their focus on creating a vegan product. Their offerings always include more coconut-milk-based flavors than dairy, because that’s what the customer base has demanded
Vía Lactea, or Milky Way, is the brainchild of artist and pastry chef Lorivie Alicea, who co-owns the project with business partner Reinaldo Sanchez. Through a chance meeting with Café Regina’s owner Kali Jean Solack, they have been working out of this kitchen. On weekends, they’re serving scoops to lines that reach to the street in their house-made activated charcoal cones — which are vegan and gluten free, because it’s their goal to make their ice creams as accessible as possible to all with dietary restrictions. That’s why even the brownies in their chocolate ice cream are soy free
But today, the parcha. Alicea shows me how to tell whether the big, egg-shaped fruits are ripe, by squeeze and smell. She cuts one and we slurp out its citrusy, sticky innards.
“Do you taste that orange?” she asks. “Sometimes the pulp is really bright orange. There are a lot of different kinds of passion fruit — they’re like oysters.”
She reminisces about how her grandmother would cultivate them, peel the skin, and turn the thick white rind with the pulp into something almost like a marmalade. “She blanched it with baking soda and a lot of sugar,” she says.
Alicea, though, will be making these into sorbet for the weekend, a dessert whose poor connotations as a sad, icy substitute she’s working to undo with her formula, which includes agar agar. “It gives it a silky texture,” she says, by absorbing water molecules, giving it the ability to incorporate more air and become smooth and scoopable. Mango and coconut, she says, always provide the proper texture, but working with more watery fruits, like watermelon, can prove a worthwhile challenge, requiring a little bit of xanthan gum. “You have to find the right balance between sugar and the actual fruit,” she explains. “I try not to take out the fiber. I use the whole fruit.”
Alicea comes from a family of food-focused folks in nearby Bayamón who grew their own produce and kept their own goats and chickens, but she tried to make an escape from the kitchen by way of art school. While originally she wanted to study industrial design, she switched to visual arts before working as a baker for a local coffee shop and attending Penn State’s “Ice Cream Short Course” to learn the ins and outs of frozen treats; she paid for it with money she made with that baking gig, giving art classes, and working at a furniture store. “If my friends wanted to see me, they had to go to my job,” she jokes. “It’s still that way.”
Upon her return to San Juan from Pennsylvania, she worked at the upscale Spanish restaurant Bodegas Compostela, where she was able to put the skills learned in school to use and figure out some new stuff while on the job.
“It’s very fancy, very traditional Spanish cuisine. I was making custard-based desserts and pastries,” she says. “I was experimenting with fruit a lot. The first time I worked with figs was there. They looked like jewels. I applied everything I learned in Penn State there, at that restaurant. It was a really big step for me, in terms of making ice cream, and I had a lot of clients there who were vegan.” Translating the recipes and techniques she knew already into non-dairy recipes proved challenging, but at the restaurant, she was given the space to learn.
The pull to go off on her own was strong, though, and so she launched Vía Lactea in late 2018 (“forget the bills — I have a dream,” she recalls of her thoughts at the time) with Sanchez, who’s been vegan for six years and credits the diet with curing his fatty liver disease. His background in biology and nutritional science has been of use; when seeking someone to explain the chemistry behind ice cream — the air, the fat, the purpose of sugar — he’s a fount of knowledge
They sold out at the Puerto Rico Vegan Fest in February and continue to see the coconut-based product perform better than the traditional. “Ice cream can be too decadent, and a lot of adult people are lactose intolerant,” she explains. “Sometimes you want a chocolate ice cream and you get a milk chocolate ice cream, but when you use coconut milk, you get more chocolate flavor.” Their vegan chocolate brownie ice cream is their best-seller.
For Alicea, it makes sense to keep the concurrent menus, as she’s attached to their guayaba (guava) and goat cheese, as well as the parcha cheesecake flavors. These are great sellers that are difficult to replicate with a vegan base, and while she and Sanchez are slowly but surely proving that the market for non-dairy dessert is strong, there is always the concern that going fully vegan could alienate omnivorous customers.
Right now, Vía Lactea, with its local fruits, pastry chef pedigree, and chemistry expertise, is focused only on opening up a larger production facility and continuing to churn out the flavors they’ve become locally famous for, always with double the vegan options that are as decadent as any traditional dessert. “We don’t want to do something that emphasizes what’s healthy,” says Alicea. “It’s a treat. We want people to be happy. If you want to be healthy, eat a salad.”