Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hawaii: Shave Ice Update

I've been a big fan of Hawaiian shave ice since I was a kid and discovered the old Island Snow chain in Waikiki. Even though those were likely sub-par examples, it was a revelation. A snow cone that was actually soft like snow, not hard and icy, with tropical flavors and ice cream on the bottom (only later on the North Shore would I experience the beauty of sweet beans mixed into the ice cream). I would sometimes eat a couple per day. When I go to Hawaii for vacation, I still eat an embarrassing amount of shave ice. Here's a run down of a few old favorites and some new ones from this trip. In tasting note fashion, each Shave Ice will be rated on three categories as follows.

1. Ice. The ice should be soft and melt in your mouth. This isn't a snow cone. Points off for big ice crystals or hardness.

2. Flavors. How do the syrups taste. My favorite flavors are strawberry, strawberry and cream and lilikoi, but I reserve the right to try whatever I feel like.

3. Add-ons. I like ice cream and azuki beans (sweet black beans) on the bottom of my cone. The beans should be sweet and soft so that they form a beany, fruity milkshake at the bottom of the cone. This is really the best part of a shave ice.

So, here they are in the order I consumed them.

Waiola Shave Ice, Kaimuki, Honolulu (pictured above right): This is an old favorite but many say it's gone down hill since a change in location a few years ago (there is another branch in Moilili). That's certainly true of the service, which was pretty bad and disorganized, but the shave ice is still very good.
Ice: Near perfect. Soft all the way through.
Flavors: Fantastic. Strong flavors that last through the whole shave ice.
Add-ons: Meh. The beans are too hard and not sweet enough which means they don't blend well with the ice cream and deny you of that lovely beany milkshake. It's like having canned kidney beans at the bottom.

Keneke's, Waimanolo: This storefront plate lunch stand makes a solid shave ice.
Ice: Good, some hardness and an ice chip or two, but mostly soft.
Flavors: Good. Nothing homemade tasting but solid stuff.
Add-ons: Good. Beans are a mashed paste, ice cream is fine, nothing to complain about. And hey, where else are you gonna' get shave ice if you're out there anyway.

Shimazu Store, Kalihi, Honolulu: This is one of the most popular shave ice places on Oahu. It's only been around for a few years but it's definitely got foodie cred. The shave ices here are enormous, the flavor list extensive with lots of innovative flavors. It's also a fun place and the proprietor is very friendly.
Ice: Very good. The inside of the cone is as soft as can be, but the outside of the cone tends to harden, possibly due to the size of the thing. This encourages you to burrow into the middle which leaves you with an icy outside shell, which is not a great situation to be in.
Flavors: I was actually not very impressed with the flavors. The lilikoi had an artificial-candy taste instead of a natural lilikoi flavor. The strawberry and cream was fine but not as rich as the Waiola version.
Add-ons: Beans were good, ice cream seemed a bit too sweet.

Aoki's, Haleiwa: I've stopped hitting the more famous Matsumoto's on my trips to the North Shore because the lines are just too long so instead, I went to nearby Aoki's.
Ice: Okay. Not super soft.
Flavors: Not very good. Flavors were weak and indistinct. Everything just tasted like sugar and citric acid.
Add-ons: Very good. Beans were sweet and mixed in well. Proportions of beans and ice cream were perfect.

Bonus - Snow Factory, Moiliili (pictured above). Technically, this isn't shave ice, it's shave ice cream, but the format is similar. Instead of ice, they shave a giant block of ice cream and add syrups and other add on such as mochi, cookies, etc. The add ons here are more similar to a Korean bingsu then a traditional Hawaiian shave ice.
Ice/Snow: The shaving of the ice cream creates a great, melt in your mouth flavors.
Flavors: Fruit flavors tended to be better than more traditional ice cream flavors. Maybe it's just the psychology of eating this as a shave ice, but I thought the lilikoi worked better in the shaved format, then say peanut butter.
Add-ons: Most were pretty good. The mochi balls go well with the ice cream, but the best were passion fruit pops. Little gelatinous balls that explode with passion fruit when you bite them. These reminded me of the "cherries" they serve at Jose Andreas' Bazaar and other molecular gastronomy treats.

Summary: Overall, I would say Waiola still has the best flavors and ice. Keneke's may be my favorite for the add-ons. Even though Shimazu is a big hit with pretty much everyone these days, I didn't think it lived up to the hype.

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