I saw these beautiful leis at the Hanalei Farmers’ Market. These were not the full leis that one normally sees in Hawaii, but elegant strings of plumeria, bougainvillea and crown flowers, the first two growing in abundance on Kauai and Oahu throughout my visit.
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, right?
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.
Kauai has lots of taro fields. Not that the Garden Isle has exclusive claim to them, but the North Shore is considered the best place on the Islands to grow taro. Over half of all poi in Hawaii is made from Kauai taro. Around Hanalei, you drive past the fields on all sides. The largest farm in Hawaii is here (Haraguchi Farm). In Princeville, the Hanalei Valley Overlook has a commanding view of the fields against a spectacular backdrop of waterfalls and mountains, including the twin peaks of Hihimanu.
Given its prominence on Kauai, it’s no surprise that taro takes center stage. Besides poi at restaurants, there are two businesses that use taro as one of the main ingredients. Taro Ko Factory in Hanapepe makes highly sought after taro (as well as Okinawan sweet potato, regular potato and breadfruit) chips for sale only on its premises, made fresh daily until they run out, which happens daily. Unfortunately for us, we were too late, even if we got there in early afternoon.
In Hanalei, a food wagon (Hanalei Taro & Juice Co.) uses the corm as an ingredient in many menu items, including hummus, smoothie, veggie burger, even in a vinaigrette that’s served with their Kalua pork salad. It’s also in their famous taro mochi cake, a lightly sweet dessert made dense by the addition of rice flour. Their pork and chicken lau lau, of course, use taro leaves.
While it’s safe to say that Browning wasn’t thinking of taro when she wrote her sonnet, she’d agree that you might fall in love with its many forms when you visit Kauai.
What’s a week on Oahu without glutting ourselves on local grinds? We revisited some old ‘friends’ and made some new ones. Hawaii is the land of shave ice; we did our best to support that sub-economy, as much to have the best in the world as to be a foil for the Hawaiian sun. Wherever we could include island fruits in our diet, whether it be fresh or as flavorings, we found no excuse to refuse. In the flow of cocktails, wine and beer that crossed our lips, the most interesting spirit turned out to be agricole rum that we sampled at a distillery in Kunia.
Me Bar-B-Q (Waikiki, Honolulu)
Our taxi driver who picked us up Honolulu Airport recommended the barbecue restaurant near where we were staying. “Lots of food, good prices,” he said. As it turns out, Me Bar-B-Q was on my short list of new places to check out anyway. What a terrific way to start our dining experiences on Oahu! The BBQ is likely a reference to the Korean style of grilling meat and vegetables at your table, but really the word limits how this cafe should be seen, a place that serves Korean food in huge, delicious portions in styrofoam clamshell containers that seems right at home with Hawaiian plate lunches. There are a few tables outside for customers (no grilling), but most people order takeout. The small ordering area belies the extensive repertoire, ranging from kal bi, chicken katsu, man doo, bi bim bap, fried squid, oxtail soup, yook gae jang, seafood pa jeun, Korean wings, and more. Most dishes come with what they call four ‘sides’ (along with two scoops of rice) but they are really banchan. And how about breakfast at 7am—2 fried eggs, 2 scoops rice with your choice of bacon, spam, Portuguese sausage or corned beef hash? Yowza!
The combination plate of kal bi and chicken katsu was terrific, as were the sides of broccoli, cabbage kim chee, spicy cucumbers and chap chae. The two meat preparations were as good as I’ve had anywhere.
On another night, I got an order of Korean Spicy Chicken Wings, whose batter was too thick and crunchy, the wings served sauceless, tasty nonetheless.
151 Uluniu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
Musubi Cafe Iyasume (Waikiki, Honolulu)
Iyasume was also near our accommodations in Waikiki, with an entrance on Kuhio (part of the Aqua Pacific Monarch Hotel) and two additional (and more direct) ones on Uluniu. It’s been getting a lot of love; it made Yelp’s top 100 places to eat in 2016 and the local media praised it. This kind of rice ball can be eaten any time of day, which is the reason it opens daily at 6:30am and closes at 8pm. Every musubi is wrapped in plastic wrap, which helps to prevent them from drying out. It’s best eaten when still warm, which is how they’re sold at Iyasume. A small quibble is that their spam is flavored with teriyaki sauce; I like mine just plain fried. But, otherwise all their musubi are spot on. They’ve become so popular that other Waikiki outlets have opened up.
Musubi Cafe Iyasume
2427 Kuhio Ave
Hawaii Crown Plantation (Waikiki, Honolulu)
Hawaii consistently has the best pineapple I have ever eaten. Maybe because they’re field ripened. They’re so sweet and juicy. Here, not once did I ever have anything less than excellent. Mainlanders who have access to the fruit from faraway places may be excused for possibly not being too gaga over pineapples, but they would quickly change their attitudes if they have what Hawaiians have available to them, seemingly year-round. We went through two whole pineapples in a week, purchased at the Waikiki Food Pantry. Only two blocks away from the supermarket is Hawaii Crown Plantation that not only sells chocolates, coffee and mac nuts, but pineapples that are grown at their Big Island and Oahu farms. They also make smoothies. The pineapple one is the most refreshing smoothie I’ve had in a long time.
Hawaii Crown Plantation
159 Kaiulani Ave, Ste 105
Honolulu, HI 96815
Leonard’s Bakery (Kaimuki, Honolulu)
No trip to Honolulu, indeed all of Hawaii, would be complete without a pilgrimage to Leonard’s, home of the malasadas. Every malasada is warm out of the oven. In the plain-versus-filled wars, I’m in the latter camp, their creamy tropical fruit fillings making me forget that I’m not really a fan of custards. We did not have a chance to sample Champion’s, though doubtless one day we will.
933 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96816
Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp (Kahuku)
We love Fumi’s, absolutely love it. It doesn’t get the adoration or crowds of Giovanni’s or Romy’s. They use plenty of butter and garlic, which already is a recipe for decadence. Plus, their shrimp is very fresh, shells intact (except for their fried shrimp), backs slit perfectly and cleanly deveined. The shells are easy to remove in one or two quick pulls. Lots of good sauce coats the shells, so I find it imperative to suck it off before peeling. My favorite is their Spicy Garlic Shrimp whose sauce is a to-die-for combination of butter, garlic, chile pepper sauce and sriracha. The sauce over rice is enough incentive to finish both scoops, where normally I might leave some behind.
Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp
56-777 Kamehameha Hwy
Kahuku, HI 96731
Ted’s Bakery (Haleiwa)
Recently, Ted’s added island foods to its menu of pies and cakes. I’ve not had any because I can’t get past Fumi’s. I only stop at Ted’s for its legendary chocolate haupia pie, the single dessert item that made it famous. It’s even sold in Honolulu at local supermarkets, it’s that popular. We’ve stopped here each time we do a North Shore run, just for a slice of that pie.
59-024 Kamehameha Hwy
Sunset Beach, HI 96712
Jimbo Restaurant (Moiliili, Honolulu)
I hate when the food changes at your favorite restaurants. We’d been to Jimbo twice before, and I loved their nabeyaki udon. The noodles were wonderfully chewy and the broth soul-satisfyingly rich and flavorful. The current disappointing version consists of oddly cut noodles (thinly rectangular in cross-section) and while starting out firm, they quickly became soft. And the broth? It had none of the smoky and umami-deep flavor of my memories, having transformed into a thinner version of the original. My sister-in-law’s curry was ordinary. Sadly, it was the only restaurant on this trip that didn’t equal our previous experience. I will not be going back. Marukame now has a better udon.
1936 S King St #103
Honolulu, HI 96826
Eggs ‘n Things (Waikiki, Honolulu)
My wife really loves the Portuguese sausage here, made specially for Eggs ‘n Things. It really is tasty, not quite as garlicky as our favorite commercial brand (Purity). I also like their fried rice. We usually refrain from their sweet breakfast items, like their famous (and gigantically sized) pancakes (their syrups are cloyingly sweet). This time, we went to the Kalakaua branch in Waikiki rather than the flagship restaurant on Saratoga (also in Waikiki, across from the post office) . There was a line out the door, but we got seated within 30 minutes. The operation is more regimented here, from (politely) insisting on an orderly waiting line, to ordering and paying for your breakfast before getting seated, even requesting that your party not spread out too much when pre-ordering lest you block the entrance. The younger staff also are less genuinely friendly than the old-timers on Saratoga.
Eggs ‘n Things Waikiki Beach Eggspress
2464 Kalakaua Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
Manulele Distillers (Kunia Camp)
Manulele is one of the rare distilleries that make agricole rum—rum made from cane sugar (which the Hawaiians call kō) rather than molasses and other ingredients. Located on several acres of what used to be part of the Dole sugar cane fields, Manulele produces several styles of rum— whites, barrel-aged and liqueur, the manufacture of which were explained on a (fee-based) tour we took. I’m not a rum enthusiast, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed their distinct flavor profiles. Rum-tasting is available. A very eco-friendly, socially conscious operation.
92-1770 Kunia Rd #227
Kunia Camp, HI 96759
Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha (Honolulu)
It’s worth the drive out to the Aina Haina Shopping Center to get shave ice made with fruit-based syrups and combined with Tahitian vanilla ice cream. The ice wasn’t as fluffy as Wailua Shave Ice in Kapa’a (Kauai) or Waiola Shave Ice in Honolulu, but fine enough. Classic Rainbow (strawberry, mango, and pineapple syrups) and Tropical Delight (guava, pineapple and lilikoi syrups) were extremely good.
Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha
820 W Hind Dr #116
Honolulu, HI 96821
Side Street Inn on Da Strip (Kaimuki, Honolulu)
It’s a good idea to book a reservation here, otherwise the wait can be a bit long during popular dinner hours. This place opened up on Kapahulu to be closer to the Waikiki crowd (the famous original is near Ala Moana Shopping Center). Portions tend to be large, so sharing is essential. It’s best to come with a large party to taste more than a few things. Two years ago, we thought highly of their Da’ Works Fried Rice and Da’ Famous Pan Fried Island Pork Chops, both signature dishes. This time around, Kula’s Farmer Blend Salad, a good salad, had an interesting garnish of fried Okinawan sweet potato curls and capers. But, leathery beyond belief was their special Chinese-Style Pork Ribs. Better was Misoyaki Chicken, cooked perfectly with nice grill marks.
Side Street Inn on Da Strip
614 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
The Pig and the Lady (Chinatown, Honolulu)
My sister-in-law read about The Pig and the Lady and took us there for dinner back in 2014. It’s located in Honolulu’s Chinatown and has a non-descript storefront that you would be hard-pressed to associate with one of Bon Appetit’s best restaurants of 2014. After that memorable dinner, my wife and I saw their stand at Honolulu’s Saturday Market and had one of the best sandwiches we ever ate (Pho French Dip). So, it was a no-brainer to go back. We originally intended to have dinner there, but it was booked solid throughout our entire stay. We went for lunch instead, sharing the Pho French Dip Sandwich, Laotian Fried Chicken Wings and Smoked Eggplant & Crispy Rice. The sandwich was as legendary as before. The eggplant appetizer was kind of like baba ghanoush with Vietnamese flavors on toasted crispy rice crackers. Crispier wings I’ve never had. With that killer sauce (and fried shallots, roasted peanuts and finely shredded kaffir lime leaves), it was all I could do not to order another round. Superb.
But, the amazement didn’t stop there. We shared a couple desserts. P&L has what it calls a soft serve program in which a special frozen custard and sorbet are featured for limited times. Today’s custard was lilikoi. Infused with coconut liqueur (I think the waitress said), sprinkled with candied mac nuts and generously served with Frangelico whipped cream, the pumpkin chiffon pie was divine. The Pig and the Lady is a stellar restaurant, clearly the best dining experience of our entire trip.
The Pig and The Lady
83 N. King St.
Honolulu, HI 96817
Grilled Abalone (KCC Saturday Farmers’ Market, Kaimuki)
The Big Island farms abalone that is sold commercially, mainly to Japan. They are also sold at the Honolulu farmers’ market every Saturday. Rather small in size (they are a species from Northern Japan called ezo), they’re grilled and sold in pairs. Once you pick up your order, you can sprinkle any number of sauces on them, including soy sauce, bottled lemon juice and yuzu sauce. They’re meaty and mild in flavor and a unique experience if you’ve never had fresh abalone.
OnoPops (KCC Saturday Farmers’ Market, Kaimuki)
Ice pops seem to be the rage these days. As with many things mundane, artisanal updates use quality ingredients, sometimes organic, including fresh local fruit, such as OnoPops based in Kauai. As you would expect, quite a few island fruits get to show off their flavors. I got their lychee pop. It wasn’t strongly flavored of the fleshy nut and was too crunchy, like ice cubes, as if it had partially thawed and re-froze.
Mean Da Chicken (Kaka’ako, Honolulu)
Huli huli chicken is the signature chicken dish of Hawaii. Recipes usually call for teriyaki blend (half soy sauce, half sugar), ketchup and pineapple juice. They’re grilled over kiawe wood in large barbecue trailers and can be seen only on weekends where some sort of fund-raiser is going on. We’ve never been lucky enough to stumble on one, mostly because we don’t usually have a car (except a rental to go to the North Shore). So, I went on an internet search for more stationery purveyors and found three. One is in Haleiwa (Ray’s Kiawe Broiled Chicken, only on Saturdays), one in Kaneohe (Mike’s Huli Chicken, everyday) and one across from Ward Warehouse in Honolulu (Saturdays only). The last used to be Stanley’s Huli Huli Style BBQ Chicken but is now (or been replaced by) Mean Da Chicken. Da Bag included a half chicken, 2 musubi, choice of kim chee or chips and a drink. You can also get just a half chicken (no sides). Flavors were smoky, savory and slightly sweet, nicely balanced. The problem was that by the time we got there at noon, the grilling had already been done and the chicken sealed in plastic baggies and kept hot in containers. This promoted steaming and ruined the crispy skin. While the dark meat was succulent, the breast meat was too dry. Nothing is served on plates; everything is packed in a brown bag and in plastic grocery bags, which makes things messy when you want to eat on the spot. Overall, not the best experience but a tasty chicken.
Mean Da Chicken
Honolulu, HI 96814
(Sports Authority parking lot across from Ward Warehouse)
Waiola Shave Ice (Kaka’ako, Honolulu)
I noticed it first when we strolled through Ward Warehouse a few days before. The great Waiola Shave Ice just off Kapahulu Ave now has an operation at the Warehouse. Plus, there are places to sit down in a common eating area shared with other restaurants. What intrigued me was a product called milk ice (which seems like a variation of Taiwanese snow ice). This is the way they describe it: “Made with real cane sugar, regular milk, and concentrated syrup which contains real fruit juice. After we mix the liquids, then we add the shave ice and mix it up again. Finally, we dress it up with condensed milk and fruit toppings.” They were very good, both the lilikoi and mango versions. They’re thicker than regular shave ice because of the milk, almost custardy. They come only in the ‘large’ size—humongous. Next time, I’ll stick with regular shave ice, which my wife did. She ordered one with an intense flavor of lilikoi.
Waiola Shave Ice
1050 Ala Moana Blvd
Honolulu, HI 96814
Ono Seafood (Kaimuki, Honolulu)
I’ve only had excellent ahi poké in Hawaii, and nowhere else. It has to do with the absolute freshness of the ahi tuna, which the Islands have in abundance. The texture is smooth, almost buttery, the flavors clean and sweet. You could say it’s almost impossible to have bad poké in Hawaii. Ono Seafood on Kapahulu Ave is one of the best. Almost impossible to find, with no street signage and set back in a parking lot on the bottom floor of an apartment building (it’s the first lot mauka the Tesoro gas station), even the interior space is tiny, awash in turqoise like you’re underwater. My favorite is #1, ahi poké which combines tuna, sweet onions, kukui nuts, limu, sesame oil, soy sauce and chile peppers. I had it for the first time in 2014, and now, almost two years later, it did not disappoint. Wonderful.
747 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96816
Amaebi is prized for their sweet flavor and for their use in sushi. They are caught off the shores of several Hawaiian islands. I saw these sweet shrimp at the Maunakea Market Place in Honolulu’s Chinatown and at the KCC Saturday Market.
The hundreds of koi in the ponds surrounding Byodo-In temple have always been an incredible sight, but in my mind, the impression left by black swans floating above the fish is more extraordinary.
There’s nothing more mesmerizing than watching the huge, crashing surf at Ehukai Beach on Oahu’s North Shore, more commonly known as the Banzai Pipeline. Our traveling party sat on the warm sands, digesting our shrimp from Fumi’s and chocolate-haupia pie from Ted’s Bakery, when a dog came trotting along the swash, not in the least bothered by the turmoil close by.