Aside from malasadas, the local food I most wanted to eat in Hawaii was shave ice. Yup. ...Frozen water. But frozen water so finely shaved that it looks like snow and fully soaks up whatever syrup it's doused in. We don't get that in New York City—among the few shaved ice desserts available here, most seem to consist of slovenly crushed ice, unappealingly chunky and crunchy, instead of gossamer-like shavings. This just wouldn't fly in Hawaii. Because crushed ice blows.
Kathy brought me to Waiola, her favorite shave ice spot, where we shared a bowl of lilikoi (passion fruit) and li hing mui-flavored ice on top of custard (the flan-like sort) and mochi nubbins ($5). The first bite was a shock: It was smooth as Italian ice or sorbet, but fluffier and juicier, aka, unlike any other shaved ices I've ever had. Also unlike any other shaves ice I've had is that every bit of ice was saturated in syrup—no unsightly pockets of naked ice. As the bottom of of the bowl fills with melted syrup-soaked ice, you can slurp it up with the skinny straw (or you can just leave it and not ingest more sugar than necessary, but hey, the straw is there for a reason).
While the ice alone was great, I liked it more with the custard and mochi for extra creaminess and chew. VARIEGATED TEXTURES, GIVE THEM TO ME.
Waiola offers more than just piles of finely shaved ice—they also sell crack seed! And if you're me, you didn't know what crack seed was until you went to Hawaii. Judging from Kathy's reaction to my state of crack seed ignorance, I may as well have told her I didn't know what a potato was. She, along with probably every other Hawaiian, grew up eating crack seed.
So...what is it? (Not drugs, although in a related matter, crystal meth seems to be the main problem drug in Honolulu. In case anyone was wondering. ...Probably not. I WAS CURIOUS SO I LOOKED IT UP.) It's a category of Hawaiian snacks encompassing dried fruits, Japanese cookies, rice crackers, li hing mui-flavored everything, dried seafood, and...more stuff like that, if the categorization of those snacks means anything to you (I describe them a bit more on Serious Eats). They did to me—because they're Asian! Hey, I'm Asian (sort of)! Neat. But unlike on the Mainland (I got used to that term for "the rest of the US" by the end of my trip) where my best chance at finding these types of snacks would be at an Asian food store, these snacks are available all over the place in Honolulu, from drug stores to dedicated crack seed shops...or select shave ice joints.
A Cupcake and Icee at Aina Haina Shopping Center
- I EXPERIENCED IT!!! Image from icee.com.
Perhaps just a smidge less scandalous than me not knowing what crack seed was me not ever having ingested an Icee before. I wasn't even sure what an Icee was until I saw the red and blue logo, at which point my brain had some sort of wooshy "ta da!" moment and said, "Ohhh, I've seen that logo about a gazillion times, yet I never realized it was advertising a semi-frozen carbonated beverage." I regarded it, foolishly perhaps, as nothing special, just like everything else at strip mall convenience stores. (By the way, my attitude towards convenience stores is completely different in Asia, because in Asia they are full of ASIAN FOOD, and that is way better than the average convenience store in the US.) The anthropomorphic polar bear and artificial colors just didn't reel me in.
To rectify my non-Icee existence, we popped by Aina Haina Shopping Center to get a special Icee from Uncle Clay's (original name Doe Fang). But first, we ate a cupcake. Because. That's what we do.
Gourmet cupcake shop Cake Couture doesn't have a Hawaiian feel to it (more like a minimalist feel), but that seems to be the point. The flavors were standard, nothing Hawaiian like, say, lilikoi, coconut, or mango. Although red velvet was the most popular—it got twice as much shelf space as any other cupcake—we went with a chocolate frosted chocolate cupcake ($2.50). Moist, fluffy cake? Check. Smooth, thick, creamy frosting? Check. Tooth decaying sweetness? Thankfully not present. Overall, a solid cupcake, although it'd be better with less frosting.
Unlike Cake Couture, Uncle Clay's, named after owner Clayton Chang, is all about Hawaiian-ness. One side of the store is lined with crack seed and candies, while the other side features a sitting area, photos of famous customers, Uncle Clay t-shirts, random knick knacks, and a poster of Uncle Clay's "Pure Aloha" oath:
I hadn't noticed the sign until I was on my way out of the store. Otherwise I would've been more prepared for the friendly sunshine punchy spirit of Uncle Clay.
Actually, that's a lie. Nothing really prepares you for meeting Uncle Clay. Although Uncle Clay is known for his Magic Icees—Icee with added mix-ins like creamy sauce, lychee, chocolate sauce, li hing powder, mochi crunch, red bean paste, coconut, and more—the most memorable part of visiting the shop is experiencing Uncle Clay's gentle graciousness. The Yelp reviews aptly describe the experience of meeting Uncle Clay as "Aloha overload," "real aloha spirit," and "most Aloha-ish person I know." What does Uncle Clay do to garner such responses?
He treats every customer like family (ohana). He shakes your hand, asks you your name, where you're from, and acts genuinely interested the whole time. After he gets to know you, he introduces you to his other customers/guests, and vice versa. This is not the place to visit if you're in a hurry; plan on sticking around for a while and be prepared to shake a lot of hands.
Besides showing you that, damn, people can be really nice, Uncle Clay also shows you that dreams can come true! ...If your dream is to own your favorite childhood store. (I think that's a pretty cool dream.) It was Uncle Clay's dream to own Doe Fang ever since he started visiting it as a kid in the 1950s—he became the owner in 1996. It looks like the perfect fit; he obviously takes great pride in his business and has cultivated a lasting relationship with the community.
Oh yeah, we got an Icee—a Lychee-licious ($3.80 for a small) to be exact, made of your choice of Icee (we went with strawberry-flavored) mixed with lychee juice, a few squirts of "secret" creamy sauce, and a couple of lychees. The (not so) small cup was more than enough for Kathy and me, but I saw some other customers order frighteningly large, towering cups.
The lychee flavor wasn't particularly strong. I think it just melded with the strawberry-esque flavor for an overall sweet, fruity, fizzy mouthful of slush. Refreshing slush.
And then we went across the street to Kathy's favorite McDonald's (yup, she's an expert on fast food in Honolulu) to combat the sugar overload with salt-specked fries. ...It was a palate cleanser.
And Then My Camera Died
After the fries, we went to Kathy's grandma's house to say hello, and in my case use the Internet (Kathy's house wasn't hooked up yet; I HAD TO GET MY FIX, OK). Her grandma had these candy coated, deep fried glutinous rice balls on hand, so I ate half of one. The thick golden candy shell was intense, adding crunchiness and stickiness to a layer of chewiness and stickiness harboring a center of mashed and sweetened mung beans.
During the car ride between Kathy's grandma's house and our dinner destination, I was having a grand ol' time taking photos from the car until my trusty-up-to-that-point Canon 20D went into "I am crazy and probably broken" mode. I didn't drop it or knock it; one moment it was fine, while a second later the screen went black and the shutter went on a nonstop rampage of continuously opening and closing, preventing me from being able to do anything else with the camera. After turning it on and off and removing and replacing the battery repeatedly, along with fruitlessly slapping it as though I were spanking an unruly child ("BAD CAMERA, BAD, MOMMY DOES NOT APPROVE"), I gave up and Kathy was nice enough to lend me her camera.
Online research told me that the problem wasn't all that uncommon and could be fixed by sending my camera to Canon Headquarters, along with few hundred dollars. Hmm...this solution would not suffice. So a few days later I went to a local camera store and made a mega-upgrade to a Canon 7D. Hooray, expensive camera purchase by way of desperation!!! I could write more about how this new camera makes me feel like an even more inept photographer than before, but I'll leave those thoughts for another day. Or the disgruntled recesses of my mind, more like.
Kats Sushi, or "All-You-Can-Eat Sushi, Probably Not the Best Idea"
If you've been reading my blog for a long time, you may have noticed the lack of sushi. I don't dislike sushi—I just don't like it enough to drop, say, $40 a meal on it. (Not to say that every sushi meal costs that much, but it can get pricey in New York City if you want good stuff that can fill you up. I generally just go for something that will make me equally as happy but cost less.) But in Hawaii, land of plentiful fish and sushi joints, I was totally into Kathy's idea of gorging on sushi.
We met up with Kathy's friend Noelle at Kats Sushi for their $20-ish (maybe $23, I don't remember) all-you-can-eat special. I've had too many sushi meals that left me thinking, "Dammit, I'm still hungry." But after eating at Kats Sushi my food coma-ed mind pathetically wheezed, "Ohhh my gaawd I never want to eat sushi again, or any other food, maybe, uhhh, uhhh food babies in my belly." We ordered far too much, not on purpose, and tried our hardest not to leave behind more than a few stray grains of rice that would disqualify us from the all-you-can-eat deal.
They started us with a complimentary fish collar. Yay fish! We were still in happy spirits. Because defeat was still a distant possibility.
And then we tried two kinds of hand rolls. Spicy salmon and tuna, maybe. The rice was plain, not seasoned sushi rice, which would've tasted better.
And then we tried three kinds of rolls: ikura (salmon eggs), spicy unagi (eel), and (maybe) spicy hamachi.
And then we ordered an assortment of nigiri—salmon, tuna, tamago, and red clam (hokigai?)—which is where we fucked up. We ordered three of each, forgetting that there are two per order. So we ended up with six of each. Which is 24 pieces. Which, on top of having eaten five hand rolls each, is a stomach-exploding amount.
Each of us slowly consumed our share. I reached the finish line first, allowing me to flop back and observe the dejected faces and moans of defeat coming from Kathy and Noelle, with mild relish. "Haha I am done first but I also feel like I'm gonna 'splode, so I still fail." Maybe it was just because we were so full, but we all felt like the rice in the nigiri (which was seasoned) was especially dense. Not that it's surprising that the restaurant would want you to eat lots of rice. The vinegary seasoning combined with the concentrated rice bites knocked us out just after a few pieces.
I'm sure the meal would've been fine if we hadn't overstuffed ourselves, although if their nigiri are always that rice-dense, I wouldn't want to go back for more. The fish tasted fine to us, but our minds were clouded by rice overload.
Despite that, we went to ice cream shop Bubbies for dessert. I was too full to eat anything beyond a taste of one flavor. :( Apparently the second stomach usually reserved for dessert was squashed into uselessness by my regular sushi-filled stomach.
Bubbies is known for mochi ice cream, which I've seen at Whole Foods in New York and New Jersey. What we don't get at Whole Foods are the inappropriately named ice cream treats, like...
"Functioning Prostate"? You can also get "Maybe The Bag Broke" and "Come Here Little Girl." There's also "Knock Me Up on the Blower." I'm not sure what that means.
The ice cream flavors have normal names. I tried Oreo made of Oreo cookies smoothly blended into ice cream. I'm not a big fan of Oreos, but I do like it in ice cream form. Good stuff.
Kathy got a tiny scoop (called a "fetal scoop") of Rocky Road. While she ate, I laid back in my chair while hugging my distended belly...and possibly letting out a low moan. Which is a disturbingly normal occurrence for me.
And to finish this post off with a more appealing image than me doing an imitation of a beached whale, here's Honolulu at night.
There are five more days of my vacation to get through! WAHOOO!!! We're not even close to being done.
3113 Mokihana Street, Honolulu HI 96816 (map)
Original location: 2135 Waiola Street at Paani Street, Honolulu, HI 96805 (map)
Uncle Clay's (Doe Fang)
820 West Hind Drive, Honolulu, HI 96821
715 South King Street, Honolulu, HI 96813 (map)
1010 University Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96826 (map)