It’s easy to feel happy at Popfancy, a tiny iced-dessert shop in Houston’s Asiatown, where the popsicles taste like Vietnamese iced coffee, horchata, or birthday cake. There’s a watermelon-cucumber popsicle that exemplifies the Mexican habit of treating cucumbers as the fruit they are, and a hibispecus-raspberry ice that recalls the Caribbean custom of flavoring drinks with flowers. Tamarind, lavender green tea, and sweet taro pops summon the flavors of South Asia, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Popfancy puts Houston’s fabled diversity on ice.
On my first visit, those familiar Houstonian flavors left me smitten. It took a second visit to this fanciful shop to see that Popfancy feels like home for more than just popsicle lovers. The five-year-old business is also Houston’s, and likely Texas’s, most lovingly designed cafe for anime fans—like store owner Christopher Doan.
Every month, Doan turns this shop into an immersive anime, K-pop, or video-game universe. There are Poké Ball–shaped cake pops, mannequins in black Pokémon-villain garb, and faux hot-air balloons. Even the menu offerings, like “Moon Gorgeous Meditation,” a sparkling lemonade named for a magical attack in Sailor Moon, invoke beloved shows. For each theme, the cafe also holds an elaborate costume event, complete with bins of impossible-to-get-in-this-country fan merchandise for sale (Doan imports it in concert with other small local vendors, who sometimes handcraft some of the cafe’s props). On regular days, some customers still show up in character, standing in line for mangonada popsicles in the occasional pink cape or scepter. On theme days—such as September 3, the kick-off of a weekend celebrating the birth of Jungkook, a member of K-pop megagroup BTS, with an in-store DJ, Instagram wall, and cardboard “Jungkook Day” drink holders—masked fans line up down the block.
This weekend, I’m there too, speaking with a fourteen-year-old girl with long brown hair and bangs named Leyla. “I’m a weeb—that means I’m big-time into anime and watch it 24/7,” she says. Sitting before a mountainous ice cream sundae, she glances shyly at her mother. “I always wanted to come here,” she tells me. “You can literally express yourself without being afraid.” Her favorite details? The LEDs and mammoth cardboard potion bottles, this month’s homage to Team Rocket, the villains of Pokémon.
“It’s awesome. That’s why I brought her from Willowbrook thirty-five minutes away,” says Leyla’s mother, Irma Pesina.
Though anime decor and artisanal popsicles may not seem like an obvious business model, for Doan, they pair naturally. Both are incarnations of his dreamy Houston childhood. Growing up in the suburbs with Vietnamese-born parents, Doan had no clue what anime was—it had only recently entered U.S. culture, and no one around him seemed to know or talk about it. Then one night, waking up well before dawn, he turned on the TV and was stunned by a new kind of show. It was Sailor Moon, with its intricate transformation scenes, big-eyed characters, and storyline that required viewing show after show.
“It was a complete culture shock for me. I loved it from day one,” Doan says. He began forcing himself to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the next episodes, and has been watching with equal devotion ever since. Doan, now in his late thirties, went on to train as an architect, specializing in interior design. But corporate work left him stifled. Finally, in 2017, Doan and two friends, Kelly Choi and Kat Guzman, quit their jobs to launch Popfancy. All-fruit popsicles free of artificial flavors had recently captivated West Coast diners, and the entrepreneurs sensed an opportunity.
They decided on a Texas twist: inspired by the flavors they recalled from local restaurants and friends’ kitchens, the trio created recipes to echo the cuisines of Houston. That’s why my favorite popsicle flavor, the creamy, caffeinated Vietnamese coffee, is so authentic. It’s a frozen version of what you’d find in a Vietnamese home or noodle shop in Houston, free of fillers, dyes, or preservatives.
Starting in a Memorial City Mall kiosk, the shop moved on to the Galleria, and then to the Woodlands. In 2018, Doan’s partners left the business. On his own, he opened the brick-and-mortar cafe on Bellaire Boulevard in 2019. Then the pandemic descended.
It was a terrifying time. Popfancy kept afloat by switching to popsicle deliveries for drive-by birthdays. As it happened, it was this adversity—and seeing so many scared, isolated kids determined to connect and have fun—that reinvented the shop.
“The lockdown gave us time to reevaluate,” Doan says. When Popfancy’s doors opened again, much was changed. Raising capital for a startup was, and still is, a constant struggle. So Doan decided to revitalize Popfancy by making it an immersive, ever-changing fan cafe—exactly the kind of spot he’d once longed for himself. “I would have died to have a place like this to go to,” he says. “I am a member of those fandoms. I drink the juice. I’m still immersed in anime and games.”
He has more company now. Over the last several decades, fascination with anime has swept the U.S. Doan, for his part, spent his childhood—and now spends his adulthood —passionately following the adventures of Sailor Moon, likely the most famous of all anime characters (fans of Astro Boy and Dragon Ball Z might disagree). The first day I was there, a mannequin in the corner wore Sailor Moon’s signature blue and white miniskirt outfit. Three TV monitors streamed Sailor Moon episodes and fan dance-offs. On the highest shelves, facing the wall, stood portly, pastel Pokémon—Doan’s signature teaser about the next theme he’ll be featuring (die-hard fans have discovered other hints, including photos of K-pop stars pasted under the chairs).
When I ask Doan which anime character he likes most, he says, “That is a freaking hard question!” He loves Sailor Moon, of course. He also reveres Sailor Neptune. But in a glimpse of how comforting—and real—anime is to Popfancy’s customers, Doan adds that he especially loves Luna, the black cat from Sailor Moon. “She is an adviser. And to this day, the voice of that black cat is my moral voice,” Doan says. “I still hear that British lady’s voice as my conscience.”
It’s that freedom—to throw yourself into an imaginary world with others who love it too—that draws Popfancy’s fans, maybe more than its popsicles. Looking around the cafe, I see that most customers are not kids. Across the room, 34-year-old Kay Keevi and her wife Shanae Gibbs are seated on high stools, digging into ice-cream parfaits. They explain that they chose Popfancy because it felt homey.
“I knew Kay would like it because she likes anime,” says Gibbs, an interactive software designer. “And it has a queer vibe.”
“I’m a bigger nerd than she is,” laughs Keevi, an IT consultant. Her favorite show is Naruto, the adventures of an adolescent ninja. “Anime is about nostalgia, for people in their twenties and thirties,” she adds. “Think of the Pokémon game [Pokémon GO] that came out—those [fans] were adults.”
Evening is falling. Though it’s a weeknight, the cafe is filling quickly. It’s time to part ways. Gibbs and Keevi need to go home, and I need to go inside to pick up a box of popsicles I’m bringing to my kids: watermelon, birthday cake, taro—and Vietnamese coffee.