For some, sand and surf are the first things that come to mind when thinking about Hawaii, for us it is shave ice. We're not talking about snow cones, that's totally different. With shave ice (not "shaved ice"), the ice comes out in fine flakes which absorbs the syrup flavors better and melts like snow in your mouth. On a hot day, there is nothing better in the world.
We did the research before our trip, so we knew that the North Shore of O'ahu was the place to go for the best shave ice; specifically, Matsumoto Shave Ice or Aoki's Shave Ice, both in Haleiwa. The directions we got from the hotel were not the best and we went past the turn off for quite a ways before we figured out we had to go back. If you are approaching Haleiwa from the south via 99 coming from Honolulu/Pearl City, watch for the brown sign indicating a left turn into historic Haleiwa. If you are approaching from the north via 83, look for a similar sign indicating a right turn. Both shops are on the main drag on the same side of the road, separated by a church and parking lot.
Because this was vacation and we knew we would have shave ice on multiple occasions, we decided it was vital that we sample from both stores so we could make an informed decision on which one we thought was the best. This is important stuff, you know, and we were as scientific as possible, but in the end we thought weighing the ice and measuring the size of the flakes would be a bit of overkill and probably not endear us to the proprietors or other customers. We just watched closely while they made our ices and sampled several flavors. This is vacation, after all.
The machines in each store differ slightly, though both appear to create a flake ice of the same consistency. Both stores offer ice in a paper cone with the option to purchase a separate plastic holder (US$0.25) that helps keep drips in check. We used the holder one time and agreed that it's really not necessary for adults, but helpful for kids. In each store you can choose either a small (US$1.75) or large cone (US$2.00), and the large is huge. Order smalls for kids and large for adults if you are really hot and thirsty. For a little extra money, you can order ice cream or sweet azuki beans to go into the bottom of the cone. For purposes of keeping our samples unsullied by outside influences, we decided to do just the syrup flavors, no extras. (We know we sound pretty geeky.)
Both stores claim to make their own syrups, though I don't know if that means they make the syrups from scratch with real fruit flavors or if they buy premade condensed flavors and mix the syrups in house. Either way, we thought the flavors were pretty good. Both stores let you choose up to three flavors for each ice and pour loads of syrup on so there is no lack of flavor. Our favorite was the Tropical Mix from Aoki's (photo at top), which is a combination of Blue Hawaiian, mango, and guava. The banana syrup was our least favorite.
Our Verdict: The choice of which shave ice is the best came down to ice consistency and staying power, and we think Aoki's wins by a couple flakes. The Aoki's shave ice stayed nice and flaky for a little while longer than Matsumoto's, and we concluded that chilling the syrups makes the difference. Aoki's leaves the syrup bottles in ice water, while Matsumoto's keeps the syrups on the counter at room temperature. As soon as the room temperature syrup gets poured on, the ice begins to coagulate much like a snow cone, losing the flaky consistency and causing the syrup to pool in the bottom faster than Aoki's. We did not bring out a stopwatch to measure time in milliseconds or anything like that, it was just a casual observation.
Of course now that we have been to shave ice Shangri-La, we must figure out how to make it at home because flying to Hawaii just to get the world's best shave ice will get really darn expensive.