“Come on, come on, we have to go-o-o-o!” I told my husband, Jay, as we took our last hurried steps down the 1,000 rail ties that line a trail at Koko Head District Park.
It was our last day on Oahu, and we had to hit Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha, a shave ice joint on our way back to Honolulu, and Waiola Shave Ice, near Waikiki, before they closed.
Shave ice (not “shaved” ice) became popular in Hawaii when Japanese immigrants arrived at the turn of the 20th century to work on sugar plantations, bringing their traditional dessert with them. They began to open grocery and convenience stores, where some shave ice still is sold.
During our 10-day vacation, I got a different answer each time I asked someone to recommend a shave ice emporium to add to my must-try list. That was my first clue that it is a matter of personal preference based on each producer’s subtly different style.
Although shave ice resembles a snow cone, the ice is finely textured rather than crushed. This allows it to better absorb the flavored syrups; it is often topped or layered with sweetened condensed milk, azuki beans and/or vanilla ice cream.
Some businesses make their mark by using organic ingredients or concocting off-the-wall combinations such as Pig on Vanilla, which we tried at Honolulu’s Snow Factory. The ice was shaved into rectangular flakes that resembled coconut and topped with mochi, sweetened condensed milk, bacon bits, pound cake and caramel. The mochi added a marshmallow-like quality and gave it an ice-cream-sundae feel.
“Hawaii is a melting pot, and [the shave ice businesses] all want to be unique,” said Yen Phan, a Hawaiian native. “It’s top secret how each place makes it the way they do — the type of water, the way it’s frozen or packed. That’s what makes it so mysterious yet so delicious.”
Long lines for shave ice aren’t uncommon. While waiting for a blueberry-flavored shave ice at Matsumoto in Haleiwa on Oahu’s North Shore, a Baltimore woman told me that the Saturday before, 75 people were in line at opening time.
Our treat, which was sweeter and thicker than the others, came with a plastic shield (30 cents extra) to contain any mess.
We finally reached Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha, where the woman making shave ices for the family of four ahead of us was as slow as molasses.
While waiting, I picked up a greeting card containing the “pure aloha oath.” I read, “I will unconditionally love every person who crosses my path in life as a fellow member of our one world ohana.”
At the checkout line, we met the actual Uncle Clay, who appeared to have a permanent smile. I handed him my credit card, but instead, he picked up the greeting cards we had set on the counter.
“Aw, thank you so much for buying these,” he said. “Do you know what ohana is? Ohana means family. We are all family here.
“I opened this place with my nephew, you know. We try really hard to spread pure aloha through this business, even with the biodegradable bowls and spoons.”
Still antsy, we said, “Yes, yes, it’s lovely.” His engagement with us was sweet, but we had another shave ice place to hit.
He continued, “Are you visiting? Where are you from? How long have you two been married? My wife and I have been together....”
We went on like this for a few minutes, all the while thinking about whether we could make the last stop.
Once in the car, we devoured the Kalespin shave ice made with ice cream and azuki beans sandwiched between two scoops of ice and a syrup of kale, spinach, natural cane sugar and apple and lemon juices.
By then, finally relaxed and on our way, we thought about how great it was that someone had been so interested in us and how nice he had been. That was the real Hawaii. And that shave ice — rich and creamy — was the best.
We made it to the small Waiola Shave Ice five minutes before closing time. Through a service window, we ordered the rainbow shave ice lilikoi cream. It was the fluffiest of all the shave ices we had tried. We walked along the street, spoons dug in, as the sun slid over the horizon and we ended the day. Shave ice never tasted as sweet.
If you go
Most shave ice places on Oahu are open daily but close by 5 or 6 p.m.
Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha, 820 W. Hind Drive, Suite 116, Honolulu; (808) 373-5111, www.houseofpurealoha.com
Matsumoto Shave Ice, 66-087 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa; (808) 637-4827, matsumotoshaveice.com
Island Snow, 130 Kailua Road, Kailua; (808) 263-6339
Waiola Shave Ice, 2135 Waiola St., Honolulu; (808) 949-2269, waiolashaveice.com
Snow Factory, 1960 Kapiolani Blvd., Suite 115, Honolulu; (808) 946-7669, snowfactoryhawaii.com
Shimazu Store, 330 N. School St., Honolulu; (808) 371-8899
Island X Hawaii/Old Sugar Mill Shave Ice, 67-106 Kealohanui Street, Building C-1, Waialua; (808) 637-2624, www.islandxhawaii.com