Shave ice is the king of sweet treats in Hawaii. Available on almost every block, sold out of shop windows, trucks, carts, restaurants and coffee shops it is hard not to stub your slippah on the stuff. It makes sense, a nice sweet treat made up of mostly water to enjoy in a warm tropical environment after you’ve been surfing or diving and gotten a whole snootful of saltwater up your nose. What could be more restorative? It is somewhat unique to the islands as well in that it isn’t really snow cone, it isn’t water ice and it isn’t slushee…it is definitely shave ice, and definitely NOT shaved ice you haole you!
The large cylindrical block of ice is placed in a holder on top of a blade that rotates and shaves the ice off in perfect crystals that neither melt too fast in the heat or when the syrup comes in contact with it, nor are so large that they don’t easily chew and melt in your mouth as you eat them. They slowly melt and make a delicious slush at the bottom. The syrups are typically artificially colored, super sugary, fruity flavored or crazy flavored (bubble gum, root beer etc) concoctions to pour over the ice, lending it flavor and brilliant color. It is often, and I totally recommend it, served with an ice cream scoop. This sounded putrid to me at first, but is actually pure Hawaiian genius because it mixes with the melted ice and syrups to make a sweet, creamy delicious treat at the bottom of the container.
With so many shave ice places, how do you know where to pick up your treat? We regularly visit Kauai and Dan has made it his mission to find the best spot on the island. Of course each year he has to make sure that things have not changed. This year we tried a few new places and were very pleasantly surprised with the results.
We were all the way down on the west shore and stopped in at Jo-Jo’s Shave Ice 9734 Kaumualii Hwy Waimea, HI 96796. Apparently there are 3 places with Jo-Jo’s in the name within walking distance here. I don’t know the whole story and wasn’t even aware of it while we were there, so just suffice it to say, this is about Jo-Jo’s Shave Ice, period. It’s a crazy, dark, little building with a boombox playing some loud tunes out onto the sidewalk with a couple benches. A colorful paint job, a slanty floor and not much else. It is all about the flavors though. Over 60 of them to choose from and the most interesting ones that I had seen so far on the island. Many Hawaiian fruits and specialty flavors. I like to try the Li hing mui wherever we go. It is salted plum, which Dan can’t stand so it keeps him out of my bowl, and is just a dream for people who like salty, sour and sweet combinations. Their Li hing mui syrup was too die for. It had pucker for days and sent you digging for the macadamia nut ice cream at the bottom, which paired with it perfectly. They even sprinkled Li hing mui powder on the top of the shave ice to give it an extra kick. So much better than the almost salty, almost sour, sweet Li hing mui syrups I had been having at other places on the island. Their mango, pineapple, lime and passionfruit were all equally distinctive as opposed to vaguely fruity and sweet like at other places. The syrups are strongly flavored so you don’t need as much as you do at other places, you may want to ask them to go light with the syrup. The ice was light and fluffy and the portion was huge. We will definitely go back next time we are down in that area, I must have the Li hing mui again and check out a few of their other flavors as well .
One of our old faithfuls is Shave Ice Paradise, 5-5161 Kuhio Highway, Hanalei. This is a charming little place in a nice little village convenient to some of our favorite beaches. After a long day on the beach, snorkeling and what not it is great to grab a shave ice and share a picnic table in a park by the highway to enjoy it. Kauai, the only place on earth I have found so far where I can un-self-consciously sit in my bathing suit in public and eat ice cream. That may very well be the definition of heaven right there! The servings are generous, the ice a good consistency, the syrups are average but dependable and it is convenient, reliable and relatively quick. You never know who you will see there either, last time we saw John Malkovich!
We really did save the best for last. Our last day on the island this last trip we had breakfast at one of our favorite breakfast places, Ono Family Restaurant 4-1292 Kuhio Highway, Kapa’a, and remembered to save room for shave ice at the Ono Ono Shave Ice shack in their parking lot. How did we miss this the whole time we were here? I was enticed by a sign that read “try our organic ginger syrup”. So I had ginger, coconut and vanilla syrup over macadamia nut ice cream. The gal shaved a bunch of ice, put ginger syrup on it, put a big scoop of ice cream on that and then built the ice for the three flavors on top of the ice cream. It was HUGE! It also came with a free “snow cap” which is either sweetened condensed milk or coconut milk. I chose the coconut, and it was a great addition. Most places put the ice cream on the bottom of the shave ice and build the ice on top, but putting it in the middle made it so much better! The creaminess mixed earlier with the ice and changed the whole game. For me though, it was all about the ginger. It was really strong and sweet, but also hot and peppery and almost hurt to eat. In other words, a ginger lover’s dream! Good thing it was close to the ice cream. Dan was really jealous that he hadn’t ordered it and he likes ginger but doesn’t LOVE ginger. He was loving mine! As we were enjoying our shave ice at Ono Ono I overheard a young woman plaintively ask her young man “How did we not do this every day?” I couldn’t help laughing and we ended up talking a bit. They had been on the island all week, were leaving that night and this was the first shave ice they had tried. Ends up the young man was a bit of a perfectionist and had read about the “best shave ice” place somewhere on the island, but they never made it there so he never compromised. She did not seem happy about that and I think she needs to teach him to enjoy what’s available or RUN AWAY!! Pretty good shave ice every day is better than the best shave ice once, or as almost happened, no shave ice at all. But that’s just my opinion, and those are three of my places to try on Kauai. Can’t wait to go back and find a few more. Aloha!