Food Tourism: Hawaiian Shave Ice on Kauai

Guess what? The Food Goob just got married! More on the wedding later, but this event has had two major effects on the blog:

  1. I’ve lapsed quite a bit in keeping up with this blog.
  2. I’ve accumulated a very large backlog of food and travel experiences that I’d like to share.

So I’m going to be busy catching up!

To start, I thought I’d share a little about my favorite food from our honeymoon on Kauai: shave ice. And yes, that’s SHAVE ice, not SHAVED ice.

The closest familiar food to shave ice is a snow cone, only shave ice is about 50 times better than a snow cone for the following reasons:

  • The ice is finely shaved, not ground. This means that if you get your shave ice from a good place that keeps the blade that shaves the ice sharp, you end up with a fine powder of ice that dissolves in your mouth rather than crunchy granules of ice.
  • Because the ice is finely shaved, it absorbs the syrups much more than a snow cone does, so you taste more of the syrup flavor and less of the ice as you eat it.
  • There are way more flavors of syrup to choose from than you usually get for snow cones, and in my opinion they taste much better than snow cone syrups (that might just be the result of having more interesting flavors, though).
  • You can add awesomely delicious things to shave ice, such as macadamia nut or taro ice cream, or adzuki beans, or a snow cap (a.k.a. condensed milk poured on top).
  • You eat shave ice with a spoon, so it’s less messy and you have more control over what part of it you’d like to eat next.

We tried shave ice at three places on the island: Ono Ono, Koloa Mill, and Jo Jo’s Clubhouse. From what I’ve seen on Yelp, Ono Ono, the original Jo Jo’s (not to be confused with Jo Jo’s Clubhouse, which is where we went), Hawaiian Blizzard are supposed to be the three best places on the island. Unfortunately we only ended up trying one of those three, but among the three we did try, Ono Ono Shave Ice was definitely the clear winner.

Ono Ono Shave Ice

Kapaa, HI

This place was so good that Corwin wrote a review! And that’s saying something, because I’m the food goob in the relationship. So, the info about Ono Ono will be a combination of both of our reviews.

We first saw Ono Ono Shave Ice when we had breakfast nextdoor at Ono Family Restaurant at the beginning of our trip. When we were exhausted and thirsty a couple days later after finishing an eight-hour hike along the Na Pali coast, we decided that seemed like an ideal time to try some refreshing shave ice. The only problem was that we’d heard that most shave ice on the north shore of Kauai (where we were) wasn’t that great, and we wanted our first impression of shave ice to be awesome. So we withstood our shave ice craving for about 40 minutes and stopped at Ono Ono on our way to another part of the island. It was worth the wait.

We split a shave ice the size of my head (that’s not an exaggeration) with Banana, chocolate, mudslide, and lychee syrup flavors and with taro ice cream in the middle and a snow cap on top. In case you’re wondering what taro is, it’s a purple potato grown in Hawaii that tastes kind of like a sweet potato. That might sound kind of weird as an ice cream flavor, but it was delicious, and it went with every flavor we tried!

The snow cap tasted good but wasn’t worth it, as the condensed milk actually made the top layer of ice melt and refreeze a little, making it slightly more crunchy and, more importantly, making it stick together just enough that the top layer was a little tougher to eat without making a mess. I didn’t realize this last bit until we had shave ice at Jo Jo’s, though, so I learned my lesson before the second time we went to Ono Ono. Despite the slight hardening of the top from the snow cap, though, the shave ice was amazing. The ice was so fine and smooth that it dissolved immediately in my mouth, the flavors tasted awesome, and the taro ice cream was AMAZING. Absolutely delicious. Above all of the other factors that made us love this place, the taro ice cream was the deciding factor for me, as neither of the other places we went to had it, even the famous Jo Jo’s.

As for the other factors, we found Ono Ono to have the fastest, friendliest service.

The line was never longer than 7 or so people, and even when it was that long they made the shave ice so quickly that the line moved very quickly.

Also, they had the best selection of flavors. Jo Jo’s also had a pretty big selection of flavors, but I still think Ono Ono’s was better. I was very tempted to try the pickle flavor just to see if it would really taste like pickles…

The texture of the shave ice was also the best at Ono Ono. As I mentioned, there were no crunchy chunks that you had to bite off, and the ice was fine so you could tell they kept their ice blade sharp.

Ono Ono put a lot more effort into good product design and being more eco-friendly than the other places we went, and it resulted in a much better shave ice experience:

  • Instead of using a styrofoam or paper cup, they used a cone/cup-like shape that opens up into a large, shallow bowl. The shallow bowl part allows you to access a greater surface area of shave ice while reducing the chances of your spilling chunks of shave ice on the ground while eating. However, the cup/cone-like area at the bottom collects melted ice if you eat your shave ice too slowly.
  • The shape of the holder also allows Ono Ono to put the ice cream in the middle of the shave ice (as opposed to at the bottom of a cup as most other places do it) so that you can eat your shave ice at the same time as you eat your ice cream.
  • Also, the holder is plastic, so they can clean and reuse it. Ono Ono provides four trash cans in their parking lot with labels that help you to sort your liquids, recyclables, and trash for more efficient cleanup.

And last but not least, Ono Ono was the best value. Ono Ono gives twice the amount of shave ice as the other shave ice places for the same price or less.

And while these additional factors are more specific to us, Ono Ono is also conveniently located on the east shore of the island, both near where we stayed and on the way between all parts of the island. And they have a parking lot, which is nice and definitely not common in Kauai.

So, we loved Ono Ono so much that we were determined to return before we left. Logistically that didn’t work out until the last day of our trip, but we made it our last stop before going to the airport, and this time we each got our own shave ice. :)

This time Corwin got banana, chocolate, peanut butter, and watermelon with taro ice cream in the middle, and I got Li hing mui (salty dried plum), Mai tai, boysenberry, and mocha with taro ice cream in the middle. Yum!

Koloa Mill Ice Cream and Coffee

Koloa, HI

I have to give Koloa Mill credit for the fact that they’re actually an ice cream and coffee shop that happens to also serve shave ice. They have a small shave ice machine on the corner of one counter and about 18 syrup flavors (a lot considering this was more of an extra in their shop, but nothing compared to Ono Ono and Jo Jo’s).

After Jo Jo’s looked like it would be a long wait and we didn’t see any other shave ice places that were open on our way home for the day, we decided to stop here to see if they served shave ice and, if not, perhaps get ice cream instead. Fortunately and unfortunately, they did have shave ice. We were happy. I was eyeing the coffee ice cream, so I decided to get the only flavors that looked like they might work with coffee ice cream: coconut and banana.

The syrups didn’t really taste like coconut or banana to me, but it was refreshing anyway. In the end I just finished off the coffee ice cream because Koloa Mill makes really delicious ice cream.

Corwin got fruity flavors with chocolate ice cream, so he had much better luck with his shave ice.

Jo Jo’s Clubhouse Shave Ice

Waimea, HI

NOTE: Before giving my review of Jo Jo’s, I have to clarify one thing that I wish we had known while we were in Kauai. There are two Jo Jo’s shave ice locations, and they are not owned by the same people. The original Jo Jo’s Avenue Shave Ice and Treats is located on Pokole Rd and is still owned by the original owner and, according to Yelp reviews, is still well-maintained and has great quality shave ice. Jo Jo’s Clubhouse Shave Ice, located on Kaumualii Highway about a block away, was sold to a new owner a while back and does not always live up to the Jo Jo’s shave ice reputation. How confusing! And I would have never known if I hadn’t done a bit of extra research for this blog post.

We tried to go to Jo Jo’s twice and actually ended up going once. We read about them before trying Ono Ono and thought we’d give them a try after seeing them on the way to hike in Waimea Canyon. However, when we returned, exhausted and ready for some shave ice after a long hike, we opened the front door to see a long line that filled the place and wasn’t moving. As in, there was no one taking orders. Corwin predicted we’d be waiting in line for 30 minutes at that rate. That didn’t look too promising, so we ended up going on and trying Koloa Mill instead. We ended up coming back a few days later on a day that was so rainy all over the island that we were running out of things to do in the one dry part of the island, the southwest corner. So we figured it was an ideal day to spend 30 minutes waiting for shave ice. And guess what? Corwin was pretty dead on, because it took about 34 minutes to get our shave ice. Yes, we timed it.

And as I said, the selection of flavors at Jo Jo’s was fairly comparable to that at Ono Ono, but nowhere near as clearly displayed. Their suggested combos were very clearly displayed…

… but the full list of flavors was written in thin red and black markers on a small neon orange posterboard.

So you couldn’t read the flavors until you got close to the front of the line, which might have contributed to the slow progress of the line.

And how was it? It was good, definitely better than the shave ice from Koloa Mill, but not as good as Ono Ono. The ice was much more crunchy. The top was crunchy because of the snow cap: I learned my lesson to not get a snow cap on shave ice. However, the bottom was crunchy because their blade wasn’t sharp enough to shave the ice finely. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable, and I loved it simply because I got to try something new and the flavors tasted awesome.

Corwin got a large Rainbow combo, which I no longer remember the components of.

I got a small lilikoi (passion fruit), li hing mui (salty dried plum), and lychee shave ice with a vanilla cream top, macadamia nut ice cream on the bottom, and adzuki beans between the ice cream and the shave ice.

The adzuki beans and mac nut ice cream were awesome, although Corwin didn’t quite have the same opinion of them as me. Also, this shave ice made me discover that I love li hing mui.

So altogether, despite the fact that the wait was long and the shave ice wasn’t as good as the shave ice at Ono Ono, I enjoyed Jo Jo’s shave ice. I wouldn’t recommend going to Jo Jo’s Clubhouse, though, as I don’t think the wait was worth it and now I know they’re not actually the famous Jo Jo’s that I’d heard about. Instead I’d try Jo Jo’s Avenue on Pokole Rd, as that’s the location that built the Jo Jo’s reputation and I’ll bet they also have considerably shorter lines (and maybe better service!) since they’re off the main highway and probably lose a lot of business to people seeing Jo Jo’s Clubhouse and thinking it’s the Jo Jo’s they’ve heard about.

Oh, and did I mention Jo Jo’s hours?

There were a lot of places on Kauai with hours similar to this posted, but I think this sign was my favorite. :)


One thought on “Food Tourism: Hawaiian Shave Ice on Kauai

  1. Pingback: Hiking in Kauai: Queen’s Bath « The Food Goob

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