Seattle’s (go)Poké Future Is Bright

Getting good poké in Seattle was like getting good ramen used to be, a challenge. Now, very good ramenya are popping up with increasing regularity. Anyone who’s had ahi poké in Hawaii might agree with me that in Seattle, it’s been a disappointment. The primary reason is the fish quality. There’s something about tuna freshly caught off Hawaiian shores that makes it almost impossible to make bad poké on the islands. I’ve had great eating experiences at Ono Seafood (Kaimuki), Hawaiian Style Cafe (Hilo), Me Bar-B-Q (Waikiki), Poké Stop (Waipahu). My sister-in-law even swears by poké sold by Foodland, a Hawaiian supermarket chain. And like ramen, it seems poké is experiencing exponential growth in the U.S.

Last December, brothers Bayley, Michael and Trinh Le opened goPoké in Seattle’s International District. They have island cred because they grew up in Hawaii, the father was a tuna fisherman and the mother responsible for selling the catch and who developed her own version of poké to sell. Even the children got involved in door-to-door sales. This is the time when other vendors are establishing their own ventures in Seattle, including Hawaiian celebrity chef Sam Choy with Poké to the Max (3 food trucks, 2 brick-and-mortars), his only restaurant in the U.S. outside of Hawaii.

The three brothers wound up in Seattle and decided after a time to start goPoké across the street from Hing Hay Park. They would draw on decades of collective experience. Automatic success was not assured, though opening day last December saw a line form around the block. But after Bayley Le’s KING 5 appearance in February on the New Day show, there was valuable media exposure. Did it make a difference? Maybe so, with help from word-of-mouth and social media, because goPoké is going gangbusters. The name itself seems intentionally or not a play on Pokémon Go.

Theirs is a great ahi poké, cut (cubed) in uniform bite-sized pieces, firm and smooth, dressed with the right balance of Hawaiian sea salt, limu, white onion, scallions, toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil and, above all, fresh. There is also a spicy aioli version, as well as an extra-spicy one, the latter of which would seem to mask (disrupt) straight poké’s delicate and natural flavors. In a gesture to Northwesterners, there are also three styles of salmon poké. An invention of goPoké’s own is the Combo Bowl in which three kinds of poké are combined with rice, edamame, krab (faux crab made from pollock) salad, seaweed salad, pickled ginger (gari, sushi ginger), cucumber sunomono, and two toppings (from among fried shallots, fried garlic, furikake, chopped macadamia nuts). Friend KirkJ (and his wife), who was with us, ordered one and enthused over the tako and salmon poké.


Aloha Combo Bowl (image posted on Yelp by Michelle C.)

The fun doesn’t stop with poké. I was personally excited about five—yes, five—menu items that I happen to love from Hawaii: Bubbies mochi ice creams, SPAM musubi, Kona Brewing Company beers, Hawaiian shave ice (with snow cap!) and Dole pineapple whip (which many of you know is a Disneyland staple). With enticements like these, do I need excuses to visit the International District more?

Passionfruit/mango shave ice

Passionfruit/mango shave ice (partially eaten)

Bubbies passionfruit, lychee and guava mochi ice creams

Bubbies passionfruit, lychee and guava mochi ice creams

Dole pineapple whip

Dole pineapple whip

625 S King St.
Seattle WA 98104

Who Has the Best Shave Ice in Hawaii?

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.


Our first visit to Matsumoto’s (2010)

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.


Waiola Shave Ice (2014)

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.


Wailua Shave Ice (2016)

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.

uncleclay - 1

Ice cream underneath shave ice (Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha)


Shave ice with azuki beans and mochi balls, Waiola (image from Yelp by Gary N.)

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.

Is Matsumoto’s Faltering? (Hale’iwa, HI)

A group of us drove to the North Shore to enjoy its special pleasures: gazing at the beautiful beaches and pounding surf, and making our way through the trifecta of required eating—a shrimp truck, Ted’s Bakery and Matsumoto’s.

A stop at Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp is always an event to look forward to. We always love it there, this trip being no exception. It would be practically a capital offense not to stop at Ted’s and have the chocolate-haupia pie. We were not guilty of any crime this time through either.

One of Oahu’s biggest attractions is Matsumoto’s, the shave ice store in Hale’iwa. It has long been a destination ever since shave ice became the rage when surfing in the area became big time. Its popularity has spread beyond local shores, for legions of Japanese tourists arrive in phalanxes of buses, lining up out the door cheek by jowl with locals and other tourists (including our party), to satisfy their lust for shave ice. It is said that Matsumoto’s turns out over 1,000 cones daily. With a crew of only 3 or 4 people working behind the counter, one wonders how it’s possible to turn out consistent product. The fact that they’ve been doing it for years now is quite remarkable.

But, on this day, my wife and I noticed a difference in quality from what we remembered from two previous visits. The first thing is that the shave ice granules seemed to be coarser, a sacrilege in Hawaii which prides itself on serving almost fluffy snow. The other failing was the short-shrifting of syrups. Or they lacked their customary intense fruitiness. The shave ice was mostly ice on top, with the syrup pooling at the bottom of the cones, mine overflowing several times and tasting watered down. A finer grind of ice would have done a better job of suspending the syrup evenly. Is Matsumoto’s cutting corners to satisfy the onslaught of customers? Let’s hope not. I’m almost loath to go back.

Shaved Ice at Happy Melon

My experiences with Hawaiian shave ice have been dismal in the Northwest. (Hawaiians do not use a “d” at the end of “shave.”) As recently as two weeks ago at Marination Ma Kai in West Seattle, the ice has always been crushed into pellets, tiny to be sure, but pellets nonetheless, crunchy rather than snowy like those made in Hawaii. I am ever searching for good shave ice locally, ready to face disappointment every time.

So it was a mild shock that the shaved ice at Happy Melon, which recently opened in Factoria, was actually not bad. Connected to Jing Jing Asian Market in such a way that it seems part of it, Happy Melon uses an ice machine that does indeed scrape ice from the top of a rotating block, but the result is still not powdery but rather flaked in the style of Chinese xue hua bing. The result is still leagues better than anything else around here. A mound of ice is huge enough to hold three separate flavors of syrup, of which there are many, and scooped into a big plastic cone, which to me always raises the question of environmental friendliness, even in Hawaii. The three syrup flavors I got—passionfruit, mango and coconut—were very sweet and somewhat lacking in intense fruit flavors like those in Hawaii. Still, the shaved ice is good enough (☆☆½) that I won’t have to consider flying to the islands just to satisfy my craving.

Shave ice with passionfruit, mango and coconut syrups

Shave ice with passionfruit, mango and coconut syrups

Happy Melon's server and shave ice machine

Happy Melon’s server and shave ice machine

Besides shave ice, Happy Melon sells bubble teas, espresso and Chinese baked items and has hot deli foods.

Related posts—best shave ices

Happy Melon
12402 SE 29th St
Bellevue, WA 98006

Matsumoto Shave Ice (Hale’iwa, HI)

Lychee/pina colada and lychee/lilikoi shave ices

It was good fortune that we were able to compare not only shrimp trucks but shave ice as well. Earlier on our trip, we sampled shave ice at Waiola store in Honolulu. Matsumoto’s is a destination stop for many fans, including busloads of Japanese tourists. Waiola draws mostly locals. The lines at both can get quite long, though I suspect that it’s more of a problem at M’s throughout the day.

Because the ice here is a bit grainier than Waiola’s, it holds its shape better when topped with syrups. There is a good selection of syrup flavors, including two of my favorites: lychee and lilikoi, though for the life of me, I can’t figure out why the latter should be so bright red. Then again, part of the fun and eye appeal of shave ice are the bright artificial colors. My wife’s piña colada syrup was very tasty, very coconut-y. Vanilla ice cream and kintoki are two extras you can add. I’ve never developed an appreciation for sweet azuki (adzuki) beans, but the ice cream that I added for the first time last year, right here at Matsumoto’s, is something I perhaps can’t live without. The photo above shows lychee/pina colada and lychee/lilikoi combinations.

Matsumoto Shave Ice
66-087 Kamehameha Hwy
Haleiwa, HI
Flavors and accompaniments

Honolulu Saturday Market

The Honolulu Saturday Market is, without doubt, one of the best farmers markets in the country for foodies. It has its share of produce stalls; they mainly benefit the locals who come here for fresh fruits and vegetables. But, I’ll wager that the vast majority of visitors come here for the incredible selection of prepared foods. We’re talking about food beloved on the islands. The merging of cooking influences (mostly from Asia) is reflected in the offerings. While the food may not be the best examples, it is still good. The variety alone in an open-air market setting is exciting.

After contemplating for a while, at approximately 10:15 am (45 minutes before the market closed) we decided on a salmon fried rice and grilled kasu cod, grilled corn flavored with shoyu butter and furikake, and a mango and ginger drink. Our plan was also to get grilled abalone that were selling for $5 a small pair, but they had all sold out. It was amazing that this hard-to-get shellfish was being sold at all. We almost lost out on the corn; I managed to get one of the last ones. I did get the last fried rice combination, too. The moral of the story is that it’s best to get what you want early, even if it isn’t quite the lunch hour.

As for the food itself, the kasu cod was delicious, though somewhat overly charred. The salmon fried rice tasted less interesting than it sounded, though it wasn’t bad. The corn was over-grilled to the point of getting dried out and the furikake made it too salty. Any drink from the PacifiCool booth is always refreshing, although the large amounts of ice cubes tend to dilute the drink if left too long. The ginger syrup they sell is really good stuff. For dessert, we snagged a couple of shave ices, one topped with lilikoi syrup, the other with ginger syrup which was also sprinkled with dried ginger flakes.

Kasu cod

Kasu cod

Furikake corn

Furikake corn

PacifiKool ginger drink with mango

PacifiKool ginger drink with mango

Shave ice

Shave ice

Saturday Farmers Market
Kapiolani Community College
Hours: Saturdays, 7:30-11am

Waiola Shave Ice (Honolulu, HI)

The subject of the best shave ice is a hot topic in Hawaii. For years on Oahu, the faithful have been heading to the North Shore to Matsumoto’s (and Aoki’s next door). Even busloads of Japanese tourists stop by there to pay homage. We went there last year and made it a point to stop in Haleiwa. But, there have been those who make the claim that Waiola Shave Ice in Honolulu, within walking distance of Waikiki, makes a superior product, mainly because of the very fine, powdery shave ice. Matsumoto’s has a slightly grainier ice. So, in the interest of the debate, we headed over to Waiola to decide for ourselves. We didn’t know it at the time, but we also made it over to Matsumoto’s later in our trip.

My wife’s ice was topped with lychee and guava syrups and condensed milk, mine with POG (passion fruit, orange and guava) and vanilla ice cream underneath. (As at most shave ice places, you can also add kintoki and mochi balls.) The problem with ice this fine is the melting factor–things will get pretty slushy and sloppy if the weather is too warm, or the syrups aren’t cold enough. Sure enough, as quickly as the syrup was poured, the cone of ice began to slump  slightly (see photo above). The verdict was that I liked Waiola better than Matsumoto’s; today my wife liked them both as being equally superior in their own right, but later (after going to Matsumoto’s) agreed that Waiola is better. The ice is indeed finer, softer, almost fluffy in texture. Because ice cream is so cold, the shave ice closest to the ice cream will solidify and create these crunchy granules at the bottom, so the faster you eat the shave ice, mo betta.

A few other comparisons. Waiola has a few more toppings–li hing mui powder, lilikoi cream, Hershey’s chocolate, all 50 cents extra. You can also order (for 50 cents) li hing mui seeds. Other variations at Waiola include an azuki bowl (shave ice on ice cream, topped with condensed milk, mochi balls and kintoki), ice cream bowl (a bowl of shave ice with three scoops of ice cream on the side and one on top), sundae shave ice (ice cream topped with shave ice, then poured over with Hershey’s chocolate syrup), custard bowl (shave ice topped with flan), mocha bowl (shave ice topped with what might be Starbuck’s mocha mix), each at $4.50. To me, these are excesses that detract from the main event–plain and simple shave ice.

Waiola Shave Ice
2135 Waiola Street, Honolulu, HI