Last summer, on my trip back "home" to Hawaii, I bought two Obama bobbleheads -- well, bobble-bodies -- one with the leader of the free world holding a surfboard the other of him holding a shave ice.
It's the latter that has me walking to my car in the 102-degree desert afternoon, feeling the heat of the sidewalk soaking through the soles of my black leather shoes. I'm in search of a frozen time-travel moment back to Lanikai Beach, where my flip-flops were just steps away from Island Snow, where Barack and I get our shave-ice fixes.
Shave ice is a humble thing, born in the M. Matsumoto Grocery Store in Haleiwa on the North Shore of Hawaii. Founded in 1951, Matsumoto became a gold mine in the '60s, when it started serving shave ice with homemade flavors to pipeline-weary surfers and marijuana-scented hippies. The store's signature combination, named for the founder, is coconut, pineapple, and lemon. Today, it serves 1,000 shave ices a day, and it estimates that half of them are eaten by tourists who cross the worn wooden floorboards from around the globe.
If the syrups aren't sweet enough, you can have a scoop of ice cream in the bottom of the cone. And if you're feeling particularly "local," you can add azuki beans, red beans from Asia that are boiled and sugared to add a sweet chewy texture.
Moving to Hawaii in junior high was culinary culture shock, with exotic foods like crack seed, kimchee, lomi-lomi salmon, kalua pork, chicken long rice, lychee nuts, manapua, poi, and saimin with Spam. I learned to love it all, and shave ice was a bridge from the old world to the new.
In one corner: Snoh Ice Shavery 914 E. Camelback Road
I first head up to Camelback Road to try out Snoh Ice Shavery, which bills its product as "a cross between ice cream and traditional shaved ice." I am wary, because in Hawaii, only the tourists add the excess "d" to "shave."
Snoh Ice is a wildly exotic stepsister to my hometown treat. First, there's the difference in texture. Snoh Ice is made by flavoring the ice, "curing" it, and shaving it into a product that is denser and stickier than the straightforward snowflake-like ice in Hawaii.
Then, there's the upscale flavors: taro, thai tea, green tea, and the seasonal flavor I tried, honeydew. I topped mine with beans and condensed milk, both traditional. My son tried the mango with condensed milk and mochi balls, small chewy chunks made with rice flour.
The honeydew has a fresh, clean flavor, but it all seems too fancy, too contrived, too "cured."
In the other corner: Realeza Michoacana 2520 N. 16th St.
Realeza Michoacana serves all kinds of frozen treats, from ice cream to traditional Mexican paletas to its Mexicanized version of shaved ice. Behind the counter is a metal bin of "shaved" ice and several bins of liquid south-of-the-border flavors like coconut, mango and tamarind, sweet syrups with chunks of fruit floating in them.
I order a chico size coco, my son gets tamarindo. The server alternates scoops of the ice with ladels of the syrupy flavors. She has sweet milk and chili powder to top it off. The concoction is delicious, but the ice is chunkier, more like the texture of a snow cone than shaved ice.
Instead of the beaches on the Big Island, I am reminded of La Manzanilla, where I spent two weeks this summer. I remember the heat from the Pacific sun and from the mangos peeled and sprinkled with chili powder, sold on sticks by vendors walking the beach.
Neither Phoenix place delivered the snowlike powdery ice from home, the kind that is heaped and shaped into a cup or cone and drizzled with your choice of sugary flavors from Pali Lilikoi and Kuulei Coconut to Lots of Li Hing Mui and Da Kine Lemon-Lime. Neither had my favorite pedestrian flavor: grape.
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Each delivered a unique flavor and texture experience, but I liked Realeza Michoacana for its lack of airs, its straightforward flavors and the fact that you can take home some paletas, too.
The verdict: Realeza Michoacana