When you can’t make up your mind, try them all.
This is my rule with most good food, such as doughnuts, pizza, M&Ms, cupcakes, jelly beans, and chocolate truffles. Endless choice plagues America with endless indecision, be they in the half-mile long grocery aisle offering up several hundred varieties of the same food, or in the voting booth, where even then, some folks remain undecided . . . somehow.
Somehow (unbelievably), despite my propensity for sweet things, the frozen treat this is Hawaiian shave ice has eluded me until now. And so, on this, my first trip to Hawaii, I was determined to taste what so many had raved about. In Oahu, I saw shave ice stands everywhere — I even drove past the famous Matsumoto’s on the North Shore — and yet, on the sound advice of particular Hawaiians, I waited until after I left the island.
Oahu was wonderful, but it is but one of the multitude of flavors among the eight islands of Hawaii. Eager for a taste of another island, I hopped a flight to the green Kauai, which for all of its accolades, also happens to be a renowned destination for shave ice.
Just what is this shave ice? Exactly like it sounds: a block of clear water ice, shaved into soft fluffy frozen snow with a wince-inducing sharp blade, then doused with intense fruit syrup that makes the stuff bleed sticky colored dye onto your hands and face. On a hot Hawaiian afternoon, it delivers on all fronts: cold, sweet, hydrating.
Now, I traveled to Kauai because I longed to see Kauai, but would I ever fly to another island just for some sugary snowball? Yes. Yes, I would.
Always listen to the locals, and about ten different people told me that the BEST shave ice of all was to be had at Ono Family Restaurant in the small town of Kapaa. Ono means delicious in Hawaiian, so I thought it a good sign and head over with my friend Kamika.
What I didn’t expect was that I would have to make a decision. Ono offers almost a hundred different flavors of shave ice (including all the sugar free varieties). Having to choose just one flavor out of a hundred left me pacing in front of the counter, weighing the pros and cons of each delectable aroma. I was all prepared for basic red, or maybe something fancy like piña colada, but then I began reading options like kiwi, strawberry cheesecake, haupia, and honeydew. (Was it not Krusty the Clown who said, “Honeydew is the money melon!”?)
Unable to make a decision on my own, I enlisted the help of Courtney Sondrini, the woman who shaves the ice behind the counter at Ono Family Restaurant. Basically, I asked for opinion on every flavor listed.
“It’s so awesome. Probably my favorite of them all,” she said.
“Pickle?” I asked, because I love pickles. I was suddenly curious to try a pickle-flavored frozen dessert yet a bit concerned that my very first authentic Hawaiian shave ice was not the proper canvas for such an experiment.
“It’s gross. Like . . . really gross,” she admitted freely. I was grateful for Courtney’s total honesty. After exhausting her by running through most of the list, I asked for her recommendation. Besides melon, which one did she like to eat most?
“I only eat like one shave ice a day max,” she shrugged, “but I’m on this buttered popcorn flavor kick right now.” That sounded interesting. So did the Tiger’s Blood, which Courtney also vouched for. But seeing the worry of indecision on my face, she did what all good food servers do and made the right decision for me.
“How about rainbow?” she offered. “That gives you a lot of different flavors.”
Rainbow! How perfect. All week long, in Oahu and even on my flight over to Kauai, I had seen rainbows. The Hawaiian blend of rain and sunshine make rainbows pop up and disappear all over the state.
“Yes,” I ordered my shave ice. I wanted the first one to be rainbow-flavored.
Courtney got right to work, sticking a cylinder of clean ice into her steel machine, explaining the art of shave ice to me.
“We use ionized water here because it makes better ice.” She tapped a foot pedal and the ice spun against the blade, shooting out shards of white snow.
“The secret to shave ice is that you have to keep the blades really, really sharp. That’s what makes the ice flake so lightly. If you have a dull blade you end up with something more grainy, like a snow cone.”
And shave ice is not a snow cone. It’s far superior. Snow cones are sad, heavy-hearted, half-drained balls of ice pellets, sprinkled economically with indistinguishable flavors that drip into disintegrating paper cones and will probably leave a stain.
The shave ice at Ono’s, on the other hand, is like powdery snowstorm you wish you could ski on, that gets drifted into a ball the size of your head, then gussied up with rich syrups — enough to make a dentist weep.
“You gotta make sure the syrup goes ALL the way to the bottom,” Courtney explained, counting the seconds while a flow of pineapple syrup saturates my very first shave ice.
“It’s like a coloring book!” she laughed, drawing the bands of rainbow colors on the ball of ice she held in one hand: cherry red, overlapped with yellow pineapple, leaving a middle stripe of fiery orange. Then blue blueberry and pink bubble gum. I could smell the sweetness from across the counter.
“The kids love rainbow,” she smiled and handed me my gigantic shave ice.
I guess that makes me a kid, because I loved my rainbow, too. I thought I would just have a taste, but predictably disappeared the entire frozen mess into my mouth minus the stuff that melted or spilled on me while eating it.
Now that I’ve had one of the shave ice flavors at Ono’s, I’m eager to go back and try all the rest of them. Even pickle.
As I said, when you can’t make up your mind, try them all:
- Bahama Mama
- Bubble Gum
- Butter Popcorn
- Cake Batter
- Cotton Candy
- Dulce de Leche
- Green Tea
- Ice Cream
- Li Hing Mui (Salty Plum)
- Mai Tai
- Passion Fruit
- Peanut Butter
- Root Beer
- Strawberry Cheesecake
- Tiger’s Blood (Watermelon, Strawberry, Coconut)
- Wedding Cake
- Kauai Sunrise (Mango, Passion Fruit Pineapple, Coconut)
- Bali Hai
- Berry Delight
- Big Stick Sour
- Blue Hawaii
- Carney Delight (Blueberry, Bubble Gum Cotton Candy)
- Chai Tea Latte
- Cherry Cola
- Coffee Dream
- Eastside Sunrise
- Grandma’s Apple Pie
- Hanalei Hannah
- Hawaiian Delight
- Horchata Tata
- Island Cooler
- Island Girl
- Kauai Java
- Menehune Water Slide
- Na Pali Adventure
- Ono Quencher
- P.O.G. (Passion Fruit, Orange, Guava)
- Root Beer Float
- Sunrise Special
- Tropical Paradise
- Tutti Fruiti
- Sour Raspberry
- Sour Blue Bubble Gum
- Sour Cherry
- Sour Grape
- Sour Lemon
- Sour Li Hing Mui
- Sour Lychee
- Sour Pineapple