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 be smothered 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.

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.”

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.”

Recommended by: Robynne Maii, chef and owner of the restaurant Fête Hawaii

“I like the venue — it’s a tiny service window down a side alley with benches — and the natural fruit syrups. I highly recommend the mango and coconut with adzuki beans and condensed milk. It’s great example of modern shave ice.”

Recommended by: Maile Meyer, owner of the shops Nā Mea Hawai‘i and Native Books

“Shimazu’s, formerly B&S, on School Street along the freeway, is a place for old die-hards and neighborhood kids, and its quality of flavors, ice and mochi balls has remained unchanged. My favorite part about it is how you’ll go there and see people who went as children with their kids and now their kids’ kids.”

Recommended by: Andrew Mau, owner of the clothing and gift boutique Island-Boy Shop

“Their signature flavor, Strawberry Milk, is made from scratch with the real fruit! I love that they don’t overpack their ice, which leaves lots of room for the flavor to seep in. They embody the mom-and-pop shave ice experience with a menu that changes every week.”

Recommended by: Roger Bong, owner of the record shop and label Aloha Got Soul

“Some of my fondest childhood memories are of beach days on the North Shore that inevitably included a stop at Aoki’s Shave Ice. Back then it was quaint and much less busy than spots up the road.”

Recommended by: John Koga, sculptor

“There’s only one shave ice place on Hawaii Island with not-too-sweet natural fruit flavors, a perfectly smooth ice texture and quality locally sourced ingredients. We always go to Kula Shave Ice in Hilo when my daughter is home visiting from New York and order the liliko‘i shave ice flavor with Waipi‘o Valley poi [taro root pounded into a paste] as a base and haupia [coconut pudding] cream on top.”

Recommended by: Kirk Kurokawa, artist

“Ululani’s makes its own syrups and uses ice cream from [the Maui-based company] Roselani. It’s always a meet-up spot for our visiting family and friends because who isn’t up for some shave ice?”



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