The Guilty Pleasure: Asian shaved ice. Where To Get It: Snoh Ice Shavery, 10th Street and Camelback (and other similar places) Price: $4-7 depending on size What It Really Costs: "Dude, why the hell are there beans on your dessert?"
In my humble opinion, one of the most fickle parts of the restaurant industry is dessert. There's always something hot (or chilly) and new, enjoying its day in the sun before our collective taste buds are distracted by something else. Gelato and fancy cupcakes have come and gone; to the latter, don't let the door hit your ass on the way out. Frozen yogurt places have recently hit a saturation point; never mind that Pinkberry couldn't figure out that Phoenix might be a good market for them. We're past due for something new, and I think I've found it.
In China (especially Taiwan), it's called baobing. Japanese people enjoy kakigōri. If you're in the Philippines, you'll have halo-halo. Koreans call it patbingsu. What is it? It's Asian-style shaved ice. This is a little more elaborate than the crunchy snow cones you remember from childhood, or the Hawaiian shave ice from bottled water stores. For starters, the ice is shaved very finely; the texture is reminiscent of freshly fallen powder snow. Second, while snow cones and Mexican raspados start with plain ice, Asian shaved ice starts with flavored ice.
Flavors like strawberry and mango snow will be familiar to just about everyone. Slightly less familiar in frozen dessert form are Thai tea, green tea, and taro, a faintly earthy tuber with a purple tint. Stretch your taste buds a little; the taro is pretty darn good (and did I mention purple?). If you can't wrap your brain around it, either of the tea flavors are quite enjoyable.
A further difference from the shaved ice you're used to is that Asian shaved ice comes with toppings, much like the Korean-style frozen yogurt that preceded it. At Snoh, there's a good mix of tried-and-true American toppings (crushed Oreos, fresh fruit), and Asian favorites (mochi balls, boba, red beans). Yes, I said red beans. They're popular in desserts all over East Asia. I find they work very well as part of dessert; they're just lightly sweetened, so there isn't the sugar-bomb effect endemic to American desserts.
The last part of the mix is a sweet liquid glaze. No matter whether we're talking raspados, Hawaiian shave ice, or any of the Asian variations, the standard bearer is sweetened condensed milk. While it certainly works well here, I'm fond of the sweet nuttiness of black sesame syrup, especially on top of Thai tea snow.
The leader of all this so far seems to be Snoh Ice Shavery, a couple of doors down from Cherryblossom Noodle Cafe on Camelback. I've heard there's a couple of other Asian shaved ice places in the burgeoning west side Asian mishmash, including Halo-Halo Kitchen on 35th Avenue and Dunlap. I know there has to be more out there; if you know a good one, share it in the comments below.
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