If Hawaii had a state treat, we’d bet it’d be shave ice. Like fish tacos are to San Diego and craft coffee to Portland, shave ice is a food icon in Hawaii. Synonymous with sunny beach days set to a soundtrack of plucky Jawaiian beats or drives to the North Shore where you stick your hand out of the car window and wiggle your fingers around the swirly trade winds, shave ice is 100% Hawaii.
The technicolor frozen sweet treat is the queen of Instagram photos taken in Hawaii, but its popularity can be traced back way before social media to the islands’ sugar and pineapple production days. Japanese immigrants made their way to the islands to work in the plantation fields and brought with them their tradition of eating kakigōri – a Japanese dessert known today as shave ice.
Before we go any further, let’s talk shave ice semantics for a second. Some parts of the country call the sweet treat of shaved ice saturated with a variety of flavored syrups a snow cone. Others call it a snowball in others. But, let’s be clear: shave ice (no “d” by the way) is a creature all its own. And that difference comes down to the texture of the ice. A defining shave ice feature is fine, powdery flakes of ice that dissolve instantly on your tongue as are the syrup flavors unique to the islands, like guava, passion fruit (Liliko’i) and li hing mui (a salty-tangy plum). For a legit island shave ice experience, be on the lookout for vendors cranking out super fine ice, homemade syrups when possible and array of add-ins and toppings – more on that below.
Now that you know what to look for in good shave ice, here’s how to order the perfect cup. Start with a scoop of ice cream in the bottom – we’re partial to macadamia nut of haupia (coconut pudding) – and then top with flavorings of your choice. If you want to go all in, top it with a “snow cap” of creamy, condensed milk. And if you’re really looking to splurge, get a scoop of red azuki beans or mochi pieces as garnish.
From traditional to artisanal and from Big Island to Honolulu, here are our picks for the best shave ice across the state of Hawaii:
Note: these spots attract long lines most weekend afternoons; however, whether you’re a shave ice novice or connoisseur, these shops are well worth the wait:
Oahu: Uncle Clay’s - Honolulu
While most visitors flock to Matsumoto’s and Island Snow on the North Shore, Uncle Clay’s offers a shave ice fix just east of Waikiki (and a perfect stop before or after hiking Makapu’u lighthouse, by the way).
Fans of the Honolulu shop love that everything is homemade: as in, locally sourced fruits are chopped, pureed, and mixed into homemade syrups and toppings. Customers and founder “Uncle Clay” aka Clayton alike agree that the Tropical Delight – a mix of guava, pineapple and Liliko’i – shines, as does the Classic Rainbow flavor combo of strawberry, mango, and pineapple. Both come with vanilla ice cream for added richness.
According to Uncle Clay’s social media channels, a second location is planned for the ever-expanding Ala Moana shopping mall even closer to Waikiki.
Maui: Ululani’s Shave Ice - (multiple locations)
Locals and visitors alike consistently rank Ululani’s at the top of their list and can choose from their Kīhei, Lāhainā and Kahului locations to satisfy shave ice cravings.
In particular, customers rave about Ululani’s Haleakala and Coconut Lovers combos. The Haleakala, named after the island’s dormant volcano (and an amazing place to watch sunrise FYI) is an elegant pairing of coconut syrup topped with a sweet condensed milk mixture. As you’d imagine, the Coconut Lovers goes all in on coconut by pairing coconut syrup, a berry and coconut flavor called “Tiger’s Blood” and Piña Colada flavors with an option to add toasted coconut flakes to finish. If coconut isn’t your thing, other favorites like li hing (tangy plum), mango, and liliko’i (passionfruit) can be ordered a la carte.
Kauai: Shave Ice Tege Tege - Kapa'a
Spot this cash-only shave ice truck parked roadside in the charming town of Kapa’a as you drive up north to Hanalei Bay. Tege Tege uses organic, local, seasonal fruits as they are available and house made syrups. The flavors are amazing but the texture of the shave ice is what put Tege Tege on our list. The flaky, delicate ice is hand cranked by a Hatsuyuki ice machine flown in from Japan and topped with pieces of fruit and a drizzle of condensed milk. Flavors rotate regularly and range from green tea or hibiscus to blackberry, and more.
Like many businesses in Hawaii, Tege Tege is a small, family-run operation, so when the owners go home to Japan on holiday, they close up shop. That said, count on Tege Tege to be open most days during the summer months. Even then, the best thing to do is to check their Instagram page for their weekly hours.
Hawaii island aka Big Island: Original Big Island Shave Ice - (multiple locations)
Original Big Island Shave Ice is a family-owned, roving shave ice truck that can be found from Hilo to Waikoloa. An extensive menu of traditional and more contemporary flavors like strawberry, cherry and orange creamsicle and homemade natural fruit flavors like guava and pineapple offer a plethora of combinations.
Their menu of decadent specialties are also impressive — fans can’t get enough of the Halo Halo, a Filipino-inspired dessert made with ube (purple sweet potato) ice cream, boba and azuki beans. It’s also a nod to another one of the many cultural influences that have shaped the state’s diverse palate. Additional, permanent locations are coming to Hilo and Waikoloa this year.
Did you know we lead boutique group trips for food lovers to Hawaii? Come join our next Salt & Wind trip!
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