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, 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.

matsumoto-shave-ice

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

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.

IMG_0573

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)

o1

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.

Advertisements

Kauai Grinds: Local Favorites and Exotic Fruits


We hadn’t been to the Islands in a year and a half. In that time, I missed Hawaii and its food, not having had it even on the mainland since our last island visit. I looked forward to the current vacation in Kauai and Oahu, not only to get Hawaiian sun but to get some serious local food (or grinds, as they say).

Since we flew in on Hawaiian Airlines, I thought I’d include a review of their refreshment hospitality. On two previous flights, uninspired was what I thought of their breakfasts, which were cobbled together from nothing but pre-packaged items you could get from any grocery store. So, it was a surprise that Thursday’s breakfast was at least interesting. The main course was a warm sandwich, an egg patty pocketed in a kind of lavash bread with bits of kim chee. Included in the meal were a small bowl of fresh fruit, a good cup of joe and a cookie from Honolulu Cookie. Prior to landing at Honolulu Airport, a snack of Maui potato chips and a cup of mai tai (even if poured from a bottle) was a nice aloha gesture. A step forward for Hawaiian Airlines, and I hope it continues.

Hamura Saimin (Lihue)

From Honolulu, we boarded an island hop to Lihue Airport and headed straight for dinner. Hamura is a true mom-and-pop restaurant, tucked away pretty much hidden from view and frequented by locals. There are no tables inside, only counters that look like they’ve been around since they first opened. The saimin here has long been a popular item, especially one called Special (saimin with the works—noodles,  boiled egg, wonton, chashu, kamaboko, chopped ham, green onions and vegies). A mix-up with our waitress got me the Regular instead (sans chashu, egg and wonton), but I didn’t mind since the broth and noodles were important. Hawaiians seem to like their noodles soft. The tasty, somewhat salty broth tasted of shrimp shells. A pretty fair bowl of saimin. (☆☆½)

hamura - 1

Regular saimin

Beef and chicken barbecue sticks were a bit of a challenge to chew. (☆☆½)

Chicken stick

Chicken stick

Beef stick

Beef stick

But the truth is, the real reason we came here was to taste Hamura’s legendary lilikoi chiffon pie. It lived up to its reputation, but I gave it a mark down for barely tasting of passionfruit, which struck me as odd for such a strongly flavored fruit. Still, it was supremely light, meringue-y with just the right amount of sweetness. (☆☆☆)

Lilikoi chiffon pie

Lilikoi chiffon pie

Tahiti Nui (Hanalei)

After we got settled in our accommodation, we celebrated our vacation with a cocktail. Internet reviews give Tahiti Nui’s mai tai a big nod in the North Shore. It was potent but exceedingly sweet from pineapple juice (☆☆). Our french fries were serviceable (☆☆).

Mai tai

Mai tai

On our last night on Kauai, we had dinner here in desperation since Dolphin Restaurant appeared to have a long line, and there are very few restaurants in Hanalei. We didn’t expect much based on our first visit, but their special, Macadamia and sesame-crusted ono was perfection (☆☆☆☆), nicely grilled on the outside, almost raw in the center, augmented by an interesting purple yam mash, grilled kale and cumin-scented sauce.

Kountry Style Kitchen (Kapa’a)

For our first Hawaiian breakfast, we drove to Kapa’a. Kountry Style Kitchen does business along the main highway through town, which can at certain times experience painfully slow traffic for such a small town. The density of businesses, including restaurants, is relatively high, especially when compared to Hanalei and Princeville. One dish that intrigued me on Yelp was a fried rice omelette, but unfortunately fried rice is made only on Tuesdays and Sundays. We decided on two of their most popular items, Luau Omelette (☆☆☆½) and Polynesian Omelette (☆☆☆½). Aside from cheese and onions, one had kalua pork and spinach, the other, Portuguese sausage and kim chee, both very good omelettes. The wait staff was very friendly.

Luau Omelette

Luau Omelette

Polynesian Omelette

Polynesian Omelette

Smiley’s Local Grinds (Lihue)

Smiley’s is another hole-in-the-wall in Lihue, also frequented by locals. Lihue seems to have lots of them. Thursdays and Fridays are their prime rib nights. Our party also got Smiley’s Garlic Chili Chicken. There’s no skimping on portion sizes here. The prime rib was a generous 8-oz. slab, but chewy and short on beef flavor, except along the outer edge (☆☆½). The chicken was unbelievably salty, so much so that I could barely finish half of it (☆½). Local favorite or not, we’ll not be going back.

smiley - 1

Prime rib

Prime rib

Smiley's garlic chili chicken

Smiley’s garlic chili chicken

Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. (Hanalei)

It sounded so interesting that I had to buy one. Taro mochi cake was as dense and sticky from rice as I expected, a bit purplish from taro. A nice breakfast item, too heavy to have more than a single small slice. (☆☆☆)

Taro mochi cake

Taro mochi cake

Wishing Well Shave Ice (Hanalei)

Shave ice made only from organic ingredients? Cold brew coffee? Wishing Well is a food truck operation sharing the same lot as Hanalei Taro. The iced coffee was quite good (☆☆☆). The split yuzu-ginger shave ice was refreshing but more granular than we like (☆☆☆).

Yuzu-ginger shave ice

Yuzu-ginger shave ice

Hapa Grinds (Hanalei Farmers’ Market)

This stand served an excellent haupia square (☆☆☆☆). It had rich coconut flavor, the custard made with coconut milk, embedded with shredded coconuts, topped with toasted coconuts. It can’t get any better than this.

Haupia square

Haupia square

Hawaiian Avocadoes

At one produce stand at the Hanalei Farmers’ Market, I was introduced to three varieties of avocadoes, all grown by the vendor. Many Americans aren’t aware (and count me among them) that Hawaii grows over 200 varieties, many of them considered superior in taste to the California Hass which dominates U.S. markets. The aforementioned stand was also selling a Hawaiian seedless lime, which together with avocadoes triggered thoughts of guacamole. But, it wasn’t until the farmer talked about his calamansi that I made the decision to make a Hawaiian version. This little citrus fruit has an intriguing flavor of lime, lemon and orange. The avocadoes the farmer picked out for me had such a high fat content that the guac had a creamy consistency.

Island guacamole

Island guacamole

Custard Apple, Lilikoi and Apple Banana

I also purchased other local seasonal fruits. One is popularly called a cream apple or custard apple, which looks more like a plum and has a soft pulp vaguely tasting like an apple.

Custard apple

Custard apple

Another vendor at the Hanalei Farmers’ Market grew three kinds of lilikoi, which was a surprise to me. The variety we tasted on the Big Island in September 2014 was oblong in shape, large and yellow, with a tart but intense passionfruit flavor. The three looked nothing like them, being spherical in shape and ranging in lilikoi taste from subtle to intense. Of the three, the purplish one was supreme. For breakfast on the following day, we ate all three with wonderful Hawaii’s apple banana.

lilikoi - 1

Three lilikoi varieties, apple banana

Tip Top Motel Cafe (Lihue)

Another local legend for island food is Tip Top Motel Cafe, which as the name says is attached to a motel. Yet, it is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, testimony to having served comfort food to locals for a long time. As with our other Lihue experiences, the food didn’t impress us so much. Their vaunted ox-tail soup was to me just above ordinary (☆☆½). Grilled ono was tasty but overcooked, perhaps previously frozen (☆☆½). And we’ve had more appealing beef stew elsewhere (☆☆).

Beef stew

Beef stew

Ox-tail soup

Ox-tail soup

Grilled ono

Grilled ono

Wailua Shave Ice (Kapa’a)

There is no shortage of shave ice stands on Kauai. Every town of any size has at least one. But, none makes its syrups only from fresh fruit except one, Wailua Shave Ice in Kapa’a Town. The operation is a trailer parked in an empty lot. The syrups are made fresh seasonally, which unfortunately for my wife was not to her advantage because she so looked forward to a lilikoi shave ice, complete with seeds. The problem was that peak lilikoi season had just passed. We settled on three kinds: Coconut x Coconut x Coconut (coconut milk, haupia, roasted coconut flakes), Ginger Ale (ginger, lemon and lime) and Lava Flow (pineapple, coconut, strawberry). The ice was so finely shaven that a mere prod with a spoon caused it to slump. As expected, the fruit flavors tasted fresh and lively. The ginger in the Ginger Ale was so potent that my wife still felt its bite in her throat well after she’d finished. There was no excess of sugar here. It’s unlikely we’ll have better shave ice on this trip, even on Oahu. (☆☆☆☆)

Wailua Shave Ice

Wailua Shave Ice

(Clockwise from top left) Coconut x coconut x coconut, Lava Flow and Ginger Ale

(Clockwise from top left) Coconut x coconut x coconut, Lava Flow and Ginger Ale