Asking this question is tricky in Hawaii. There are SO MANY shave ice places that I doubt anyone can realistically answer it. I’ve been to, I’d say, ten different sellers of this ultimate refreshment, and that number doesn’t even come close to how many places offer it. Can I still ask the question, who sells the best shave ice in Hawaii? A qualified yes because those at two have been so extraordinarily good that I can’t imagine their being made any better (Waiola and Wailua, see below).
Islanders use the term shave ice, with no ‘d,’ in all likelihood a byproduct of Hawaiian pidgin. The best ones consist of ice as fluffy and powdery as snow. The ‘snow cones’ I’ve had on the mainland are more like finely crushed ice and while refreshing, they’re crunchier than their island siblings. It takes special machines, which are made in Japan, that literally scrape a rotating block of ice with a very sharp blade to produce shave ice so fine. And it isn’t just this quality that makes it desirable; the syrups poured on top truly become suspended in it and pretty much resist pooling at the bottom of the cone until much later. As a mainlander, tropical fruit syrups are what makes Hawaiian shave ice so special. Why should I come to Hawaii only to have a blueberry- or lemon-flavored topping, you dig?
My first introduction to Hawaiian shave ice was at Matsumoto’s in Hale’iwa (along Oahu’s North Shore), without doubt the most popular place in all of Hawaii. Zillions of fans, including busloads of tourists (mostly from Japan), queue up daily, definitely off-putting if you dislike long lines, even more so if you hate hunting for a parking spot, even along the streets of town. The shave ice was pretty good then.
Unfortunately, on the last visit to Matsumoto’s in 2014, I noticed a definite decline in the quality of their ice—coarser, more granular, enough that the syrups quickly ran down to the bottom, leaving the ice above more devoid of flavor than usual. Was churning out 1,000 shave ices daily taking a toll?
Also in 2014, my wife and I visited Waiola Shave Ice near Waikiki, in Barack Obama’s old stomping grounds as a youth, along the Kapahulu Avenue corridor of outstanding eateries. This was a revelation. Their product was ever so light, almost immediately melting under the warm Hawaiian sun. A plastic spoon inserted in the core met almost no resistance. If you compare the images immediately above and below, you’ll notice a more uniform spread of syrup in Waiola’s product. Drained ice is already beginning to show in Matsumoto’s. You’ll even see a difference in texture.
This year, we returned to Waiola, but to the outlet at Ward Warehouse. The shave ice was as downy as before, the lilikoi syrup most intense. I suspect that their mango is similarly good.
While in Kauai only three weeks ago, our traveling party managed to stop at three ice stores. Wishing Well in Hanalei commendably uses organic ingredients, operates out of a food truck, but we only tasted a small scoop of their yuzu-ginger, which was subtle. In Koloa, after a short hike along the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail in nearby Poipu, we refreshed ourselves at Uncle’s Shave Ice, which has an intriguing product called shave snow based on Taiwanese shaved ice (flavored milk ice scraped into ribbons rather than powder), which unfortunately I didn’t try. While these two places served good examples of the refreshment, our favorite on Kauai was Wailua Shave Ice (also top image), doing business from a trailer parked on an empty lot in Kapa’a. Their ice measured up to Waiola’s, like gently packed mounds of snow drift, so delicate that a spoon prod caused the ice to slump. But, equally astonishing were the syrups made with fresh seasonal fruit. You can literally taste the fruit essence captured in them.
I’ve been noticing a growing trend of adding all sorts of stuff to shave ice: ice cream, mochi balls, nuts, fruits, li hing mui powder, snow cap, azuki beans. This is a crossover from Taiwanese shaved ice (xue hua bing). While tasty, ice cream has a tendency to crystalize and harden the part of the ice in contact with it.
Almost always, I prefer simplicity—ice, syrup and me. Everything else gets in the way.
So, who has the best shave ice in Hawaii? Well, I have my two favorite places. It’s likely I’ll add to the list as I continue my shave ice exploration on the islands.