Honolulu is not an ice cream town. San Francisco, despite summer days being a full 30 degrees cooler than our average day, seems to open a new ice cream parlor every season, exploring flavors from salted caramel to secret breakfast (cornflakes and bourbon). Honolulu, on the other hand, has been losing ice cream shops: Dave’s Hawaiian Ice Cream on Kapahulu, Ben and Jerry’s near Ward. Gelato, ice cream’s Italian cousin, hasn’t fared any better–both Mondo Gelato and A Latta Gelata closed in the last year. Bubbies appears to be the exception, filled daily with people having mochi ice cream and the occasional Multiple Orgasm (ice cream pie).
I have a few theories on why we can’t seem to sustain an ice cream parlor–maybe it’s the lactose-intolerant Asian population, maybe it’s the high costs of starting an ice cream business. But the epiphany came recently on a particularly hot day when my car’s steering wheel melted my fingerprints off and I ducked into City Café for shave ice relief. The effect of a mouthful of frozen shaved water was instantaneous; a trip to Alaska or a walk-in freezer was no longer necessary. And I realized: ice cream is like a swimming pool in Hawaii, a luxury item where there are cheaper and more effective options (shave ice and the beach, for example). We’ll probably always want ice cream with our dessert at a fancy restaurant, just like we want a hotel with a pool. But for everyday refreshment, shave ice is perfection. And so while San Franciscans debate the merits of ice cream shops like Bi-Rite, Humphry Slocombe and Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous, we will argue over who has the softest, finest ice–Matsumoto or Waiola and who has the most interesting flavors–Shimazu, the clear winner with red velvet, crème brulee and durian.
Matsumoto, Waiola, and Shimazu are the classics, the Hawaii guidebook musts, the ones every local knows about. But lately, I’ve turned to the Asian takes on the frozen water theme–Taiwanese, Korean, Filipino, Japanese–which offer more than just syrup and ice.
With Taiwanese shave ice, it’s not about the syrup flavors. At City Café, a brown sugar syrup provides a subtle, sweet background for an array of toppings. I usually go for at least five–red beans, tapioca pearls, pudding, condensed milk and one of the jellies–coffee, ai yu or grass jelly, the latter two made from different plants that have a slightly herbal medicinal taste, but in a surprisingly pleasing way. There are also stewed, sweetened peanuts, taro and mung beans, which the Chinese say helps cool the body (added insurance against the shave ice). The pudding is an absolute must–a creamy flan set in caramel.
(City Café also sells my favorite tapioca pearl milk tea on the island. The pearls are cooked to the perfect chewiness and taste faintly of rock candy; mushy pearls are a transgression equivalent to overcooked pasta.)
Ireh offers pat bing su, a Korean-style shave ice dessert, sweetened with condensed milk and topped with azuki beans, mochi and fresh fruit like kiwi and strawberries. There’s a layer of kinako–roasted soybean powder–in the middle of the ice, which provides a slightly salty nuttiness. Ireh also has coffee shave ice, soft shavings drenched in coffee syrup and cream; more refreshing than a Frappucino.
There are halo halos (literally, “mix mix” in Tagalog) scattered around the island, composed of unfamiliar textures and unnatural colors that sometimes veer too sweet, or just too weird. But the one at Max’s of Manila stops just shy of this line. It’s a crazy, color-saturated sundae bowl filled with gelatin cubes in pink and yellow, shave ice soaked in evaporated milk, custard, bright purple yam ice cream, sweetened red beans and a sprinkling of cornflakes for crunch.
Both Ailana Shave Ice and Your Kitchen offer fine, fluffy shave ice with a Japanese flavor profile. At Ailana, it’s the Uji Kintoki, ice flavored with green tea and topped with azuki beans, mochi and ice cream. At Your Kitchen, the Fujiyama bowl’s main feature is also green tea flavored shave ice, but here it’s accompanied by green tea ice cream and azuki ice cream, reinforced with a scoop of azuki beans. Other than these two bowls, there’s nothing particularly Japanese about the shave ice at these two places, except that they have Japanese owners. If green tea isn’t your thing, both offer excellent homemade syrups, thick and vibrant with fruit flavors.