Hawaii Locals Recommend Their Favorite Shave Ice Shops

In Hawaii, shops that serve shave ice, domes of pillowy-soft ice slivers doused in colorful syrups, vie for ubiquity with other local staples like poke places or lei stands. And you can count on waiting in line: Part of a shave ice shop’s charm is the scramble of people — surfers, construction workers, tourists — you’re certain to find there, all working out which syrups to order once they make it to the front.

Shave ice first reached the islands’ shores in the early 20th century, when Japanese immigrants arrived to work on Hawaii’s plantations, bringing with them a taste for kakigori, the sweet, airy dessert made of thin ice flakes with origins dating back to the Heian period (between 794 and 1185). Some opened general stores selling the frozen treat, which was unsurprisingly popular in the tropical climate. In the workaday Hawaiian Pidgin vernacular, its name became shave ice. (On the Big Island, however, the term “ice shave” prevails.)

What began modestly enough — ice, syrup, cup — has since evolved into desserts of decadent, sundae-like proportions. Mammoth mounds of featherweight ice can sit atop a bowl of adzuki beans and besmothered in condensed milk and topped with five flavors of syrup, from calamansi to root beer, as well as mochi balls and tangy rust-colored li hing mui powder, made of ground plum skins. Ask a longtime island dweller to recommend a spot, though, and the reasons for their choice tend to go beyond flavors and toppings. The shop’s age, its location and the childhood memories it conjures all carry weight. Here, a handful of locals share their favorites.

Monsarrat Shave Ice’s strawberry and matcha with vanilla ice cream and mochi balls.Credit…Tim Huynh

Waiola Shave Ice (Kapahulu location), Honolulu, Oahu

Recommended by: Ren MacDonald-Balasia, florist and founder of Renko Floral

“I get the works — usually liliko‘i [passionfruit] and POG [passion orange guava] syrup with ice cream, mochi, adzuki beans and condensed milk. It needs three people to finish but it’s absolutely worth it. Arriving beachside at the end of the bowl when everything mixes together into a soupy mess can only be described as heaven.”

Waiola Shave Ice (Mō‘ili‘ili location), Honolulu

Recommended by: Bundit Kanisthakhon, architect

“I love that it’s unpretentious and remains a community institution that hasn’t changed to cater to social media. The ice texture and syrup sweetness are just right.”

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