As I was driving CA-86 North towards Indio, CA with the Salton Sea to the east, I was thinking back to when I had first learned of the Date Shake? If my memory serves me correctly, it was Anthony Boudain’s Travel Channel show No Reservations episode U.S. Southwest where he had tried a Date Shake. The idea of trying a vanilla ice cream shake mixed with dates was worth the 90 minute diversion to Indio, CA instead of directly driving to San Diego, CA.
The cultivation of dates in the United States can be traced back to the 1700’s when the Spaniards brought them to San Diego after importing them to Mexico, via Cuba from Spain. Until the late 1800’s there was limited success in growing date palms commercially for fruit production. During this time, a few date seeds found their way to the Sacramento and Coachella Valley’s. In a few years, date palms were found to be successfully thriving and producing fruit. It was this discovery and a few additional factors that created a viable commercial date fruit commercial industry.
Dates are known as nature’s natural candy, with Medjool sugar content reaching 80% when ripe. Dates can be classified as either soft, semi dry or dry and are naturally dried when ripened and then harvested. 90% of dates consumed in the United States are produced in California with the most of these being the sweeter dessert dates known as Medjool and Deglet Noor. Dates are technically not classified as dried fruit for no additional dehydrating processes are involved except the heat and the sun as the fruit ripens on the palm.
From where I was located in southern California, three options try a date shake were available. There was Hadleys in Cabazon, CA, Date Gardens located in Dateland, AZ and Shields in Indio, CA. Shields Dates was the most conveniently located for my excursion. The operating hours of Shields Dates is from 9AM – 5PM and I was going to arrive with very little time to spare. After reading the website, some reviews and remembering the No Reservation episode, I had this impression that Date Shields was this circa 1950’s building / tourist stop on the side of a dusty road surrounded by groves of dates. At one time, the dusty road and surrounded by groves of dates may have been true, but now Shields Dates is surrounded by the clean, modern lines of recently built suburban retail stores. Thankfully, Shields Dates has not upgraded their exterior or for that matter interior decor.
I park the car and rush into the store, look quickly around and see that this lady is restocking the diner counter at 4:55PM. I ask her if I can have a Date Shake and she responds with “Si”. I am relieved, this 90 minute diversion was not a wasted effort. She takes a large paper cup out the the freezer and places the cup under the milk shake mixer. I had read that the Date Shakes at Shields were prepped with the ingredients already in the cup. As my milk shake is being mixed, I walk around the store, realizing that I could spend an hour and drop some serious cash on the different variety of packaged dates and other goodies in the store. I nibble on a few dates that were available for sampling, select a few small variety packages of dates, make a few more purchases and then with regret leave the store for the employees are patiently waiting for the “blue hairs” to finish their purchases.
The Date Shake is thick. With time (desert heat) and effort I am rewarded with the first taste of the vanilla ice cream shake flavored with dates (more specifically date crystals). The taste of the dates starts off faint, but eventually the flavor of the dates becomes more pronounced and I am also rewarded with small pieces and flakes of actual date. It was a pleasant surprise and was enjoying the flavor of the dates. What I had not been expecting despite reading previous reviews was the intensity of the sweetness of the shake. The shake is insanely sweet and can satisfy the sweet cravings of almost anyone before they finish the shake. Vanilla ice cream is sweet, but the addition of dates, a naturally sweet fruit makes the shake even sweeter.
All in all, the excursion to Indio, CA was a success. I wish I had more time available to me, or had made an effort to have gone to Shields Date Gardens sooner. The date groves of Coachella County may not be a surprise to those living in southern California, but for this visitor, it was a pleasant experience. Indio, CA is about 2 hours from San Diego, El Centro, Los Angeles, 1 hour from Temecula Valley (wine tasting) and not far from Palm Springs. If nothing else, the scenery viewed during the road trip is well worth the excursion. I only wish I had had time to take picture of the road sign pointing towards Mecca, CA.