Why Shave Ice is the Ultimate Must-Eat in Hawaii

Alan Wong's shave ice
Alan Wong's Restaurant. Oahu, Hawaii. ISL0213_TASLori Barbely

I don’t get it. From the moment I landed on Oahu, I’ve heard more about its snow cones than its beaches. OK, not snow cones. They call it shave ice (leaving off the “d,” a pidgin held over from Japanese immigrants who never mastered the hard stop at the end of some English words). Locals have directed me to five “best shave ice” stands. Now a friend says, “Go to Waiola, in Moiliili. It’s the original.” If I don’t, he says I’ve blown my entire week.

Really? Shave ice is that important? When I was growing up in New York City, I’d see men selling flavored ice or Italian ice or snow cones or whatever you want to call it. They had pushcarts in front of parks or at the top of subway stairs, and their arms were toned from sliding a planer over the ice blocks. They’d mound the ice into paper cones and add a drizzle of syrup from bottles that glittered disco red, green and blue. How different could shaved ice taste here in Hawaii? Um, I mean shave ice.

I couldn’t even get away from it at the celebrated Alan Wong’s restaurant, a rightfully lauded jewel in Hawaii’s restaurant scene. After I enjoyed a meal that was as artistic as it was delicious, the waiter offered me the dessert menu. “You’ve had shave ice, yes?” he asked. “Ours is like shave ice gone to heaven.”

So there in a culinary palace, I scooped into a cup of ice. You know what? It was the stuff of poetry: Feathery cool and sophisticated. Made with frozen pineapple and coconut tapioca, vanilla creme brûlée, and haupia (coconut cream) sorbet. After that experience I saw no reason to try anyone else’s ice. Yet, as I drive away from my friend who directed me to Moiliili, his smiling image in my rearview mirror, I feel guilty. Maybe I’m being snobbish about the concept of roadside shave ice.

I have just less than an hour to spare between here and the airport, so I drive through the heart of Honolulu and into Moiliili to Waiola Store — the oldest stand on the island. It’s in a fairly quiet working-class neighborhood not far from where President Obama was raised. I’m reminded of something else my friend said about this place: “Be very careful when you order.” You don’t just walk up and casually ramble on about the flavors and then change your topping from fresh fruit to mocha rice balls.

As it was with the soup Nazi on the classic Seinfeld episode, there’s a routine that, if not followed correctly, irritates both customers and proprietors. Order the size first, then the toppings (which actually go on the bottom) and finally the ice flavorings. When I arrive, a mom and dad are there with their two children. Still unprepared, they smile and let me go first. Inside are two guys working an electric ice shaver. “Small, haupia, pineapple,” I say quickly.

I step aside so the family can order. While we wait, the father tells me that he’s getting an Obama Rainbow — the president’s favorite when he lived in the area: cherry, lime and lilikoi (passion fruit). My ice is called up.

After saying goodbye to the family, I go to the car and take a spoonful. I’m hurtled back to cold New York winters of my youth because what I’m eating is not so much shaved ice, but powdery snow like we’d scoop and eat at the first snowfall, before it was trampled into gray mush. This is more flavorful than snow. The pineapple is cloyingly sweet. The pudding underneath is gooey but punchy with coconut flavor. It’s different than any frozen dessert I’ve ever tasted. It is not a snow cone. It’s amazing.