Local Flavor: Sipping Date Shakes at Shields Date Garden

Every time I visit the Coachella Valley, I make a beeline for a sweet frozen treat I can only find in the California desert: a creamy date shake made with fruit picked right from the palm trees at Shields Date Garden.

I’ve been visiting California’s Coachella Valley every winter for more than a decade. During this time, I discovered a new favorite spectator sport (tailgating at polo matches), a new favorite landscape (the San Andreas Fault), and a new favorite snack: the date.

Maybe you view the date as a small, wrinkled, brown staple of sad dried fruit and nut platters. But in the desert, it’s a sweet sensation. To sample a date at its most succulent, take a trip back in time to Shields Date Garden in Indio. At this palm-filled farm, retro shop, café and soda fountain, the humble fruit gets its due.

Make a date at Shields Date Garden.

Back in 1924, Floyd and Bella Shields established Shields Date Garden in up-and-coming Indio. To stand out, Floyd did two things that endear him to me to this day. First, he created a presentation about date farming called The Romance and Sex Life of the Date, parts of which can still be seen today in the farm’s free, air-conditioned theater (it’s G-rated, I swear on my grandmother’s dried fruit compote). Second, he created date crystals; these freeze-dried dates resemble coarse sugar and are an integral part of my favorite desert dessert, the date shake.

Partake in date shake delights.

A date shake is a unique dessert creation. First, crystallized dates are blended with water to become a paste. That paste is frozen, then it’s blended with rich vanilla ice cream and cold milk to create a very sweet, icy milkshake. It’s so sweet, the first sip is reminiscent of sugar-coated Easter Peeps and a sack of frozen Halloween candy blended together. And it’s cold — arctic cold. Brain-freeze cold.

So what’s the draw? The date shake — when imbibed in the desert air under the majestic palms and the glowing sun — quickly becomes the stuff of dessert dreams. As it melts, the date’s initial slap-your-face sweetness fades to a funky, earthy fruitiness, and the extreme iciness becomes the perfect foil to the 100+ degree Coachella Valley heat. To sum it up: every time I order one, I take the first sip, exclaim, “Holy smokes, that’s sweet!”  and then, before I even know it, the entire creamy concoction is gone.

Indulge in a taste test.

Shields Date Garden has an outdoor café as well, offering salads and sandwiches served with date nut bread. But usually I head to the room-length counter filled with free samples of 16 different kinds of dates. Then I nibble my way down the line to figure out what I’m going to take home.

Shields offers many varietals you won’t find anywhere else — including the “blonde” and “brunette” dates. I’m partial to the Medjool dates, often called the “queen of dates,” which are soft and creamy and as sweet as a ripe banana. I always buy a pound of the royal fruit and a bag of date crystals (which I often add to oatmeal) to satisfy my date cravings when I’m back home.

But the date shake? That I save for my winter visits to Palm Desert; it’s just not the same to sip one without the palm trees and sunshine.

Quick Tip:

Branch out from the date! The tasting counter also offers samples of other dried fruits, such as California apricots (more chewy and lemony than the sweet Turkish variety) and savory snacks like local pistachios.