Food Mavens in our Midst: Melissa Yen

Snow Cones Get a Serious Upgrade

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By David Hammond

Operating from a commercial kitchen in Oak Park, Melissa Yen turns out high-end versions of snow cone syrup, a snack many of us know only from the extremely artificial-tasting varieties available at numerous concession stands every summer.

I’ve tried several of her Jo Snow syrups and thought they were fabulous.  Yen’s very uncommon flavor varieties include Cardamom Rose Water, Hibiscus Basil Orange Blossom and Tangerine Lavender Honey. Not your Daddy’s, or your Mommy’s, snow cone syrup.

I asked Yen where she got the idea for her tasty line of syrups, and she explained “I used to own a café and was obsessed with this Mexican coffee drink called café de olla. I wanted to figure out how to get it to my customers without preparing it the traditional way, which involved boiling it on a stove in a clay pot. So I made a syrup to put in lattes. Well, it was a big hit, so I went on to make a modern version of a Turkish coffee, and that’s how the Cardamom Rose Water Syrup came about. After we sold the café, I had to decide what I wanted to do next. I have always wanted a food product. The name was made up on a road trip to Kansas City with my friend and husband… to visit a snow cone stand! 7 hours in the car will get you coming up with some goofy stuff! Fortunately some of it was good goofy stuff, such as the name Jo Snow!”

If it isn’t immediately obvious, the name refers to the two main uses of this syrup: in coffee (Jo) and on snow cones.

Compared to the standard street variety of shaved ice syrups, Jo Snow, Yen assured me, “is a whole ‘nother animal. There are no fake neon colors in my syrups and no high fructose corn syrup. I start my syrups with organic evaporated cane juice and then steep herbs and spices and add all natural extracts to round them out. I make all my syrups in small batches. This is an all-natural artisan-produced syrup. It’s more expensive than what most street vendors buy for $6 a gallon, but it is also something you don’t need to feel bad about consuming. Everyone needs a little treat once in a while, so you might as well have one that tastes great, supports a small local business and isn’t awful for you!”

Some of Chicago’s more adventurous chefs are using the syrup on a lot more than just snow cones. “Custom House is making amazing brunch cocktails with Jo Snow syrups,” Yen mentioned, “such as gin and juice with North Shore Distillery #6 gin, Cardamom Rose Water syrup and grapefruit juice. Milk & Honey has used the Fig Vanilla Black Pepper in a salad dressing. And Rich Chocolates made a caramel with the Café de Olla syrup.”

You can buy Jo Snow syrups locally at Marion Street Cheese Market and the market at The Grove (Madison and Van Buren) on Friday nights in Forest Park from 3:30-7:30. You will never again think of snow cones in the same way.


Reader Comments

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David Hammond from  

Posted: June 14th, 2011 7:51 PM

Suggest you check Smurf phenom -- huge possible market for Snow Jo. Will be posting about tomorrow.

Melissa from Chicago  

Posted: June 14th, 2011 10:05 AM

Just an update. Unfortunately Jo Snow will not be at the Forest Park Market. So sorry! Maybe next year. This one woman show had overextended herself & something had to give. Thanks for all your support!

Elizabeth from Oak Park  

Posted: June 14th, 2011 8:55 AM

These syrups are wonderful! David has a keen eye for the good stuff. Thanks for keeping OakParkers up to date on amazing products made quietly right here in their own neighborhood.

David Hammond from  

Posted: June 13th, 2011 6:21 PM

I have a big vegetable garden, and we're eating from it tonight...along with some of the 280 pound hog I recently picked up in Wisconsin. She's delicious.

Sarge311 from Oak Park  

Posted: June 13th, 2011 3:23 PM

I'm surprised Dave Hammond even tasted it seeing that it's not made from meat.

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