Shave ice is to a snow cone what Hillary is to Trump—more evolved, more refined, more excellent in every way. Shave ice is also older, made using a Japanese technique dating to the eighth century and later introduced to places like Hawaii and Taiwan. Properly made, it requires shaving a pristine cube into tiny slivers, resulting in a textural masterpiece delivered in any of countless flavors.
To help you cool off from the newly hot Portland summer, we visited every shave-ice spot we could find within Portland city limits, eating whatever item shavers told us was their favorite—from basic P.O.G. (pineapple-orange-guava) to fruity ice sundaes that'd make Carmen Miranda blush. We also trekked to Beaverton to try the new big-city trend in shave ice, Taiwanese snow.
Wailua Shave Ice
1212 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 808-652-9394, wailuashaveice.com. Open Saturdays only.
You might not know it to see the mostly ice-plus-syrup offerings in Portland, but shave ice in Hawaii can go seriously wildstyle—especially at Original Big Island Shave Ice Co. in Waimea, whose lines stretch as far as the ones at Voodoo. Wailua Shave Ice, Saturdays only at the pop-up cart in the Hawthorne Lardo parking lot, is the only Hawaiian-style cart we found inside the city that lets its imagination go bonkers with composed shave-ice sundaes. Its $6 Lava Flow is the finest shave-ice concoction I've had in town, period—Taiwanese, Hawaiian or whatever—pineapple-juice shave ice topped with strawberry and pineapple chunks on top, strawberry sauce and the coup de grâce, coconut fluff.
Wailua uses juice and purees on its fruit ice—no industrial-style syrup—which means its P.O.G. variant is made with pineapple and orange juice plus guava puree, topped with fresh starfruit. Meanwhile, the Almond Joy-themed shave ice stacks coconut milk, Nutella, almonds and roasted coconut.
6335 SE 82nd Ave., 503-788-6306, eckitchenllc.com.
EC Kitchen is best known for its housemade Taiwanese sausages, not to mention a wealth of Taiwanese fare from beef noodle to braised pork-belly rice. But on hot summer days, you're just as likely to see the local Chinese and Vietnamese communities digging into huge bowls of Taiwanese shave ice—whether two old ladies or a teenage couple on a sweetly nervous date. You can get the red bean or peanut versions for $4.95, but what you really want is the fresh fruit. Season permitting, $8 gets you a big candy mountain of rich tapioca-topped, terrifically airy shave ice (more than enough for two), topped with about a half-pound of fresh strawberries and blueberries. It is the closest 82nd Avenue gets to heaven.
Ohana Hawaiian Cafe
6320 NE Sandy Blvd., 503-335-5800, ohanahawaiiancafe.com.
This sunny Roseway Hawaiian spot with a sit-down counter is home to the airiest shave ice in town. It uses the same ice-shaving machine as multiple other spots, so the difference is all temp and technique. Either way, the texture is so ethereal it's almost feathery, and the mango syrup is sweet but not over-sticky or cloying. Really, it's a perfect no-frills shave ice, with the $4 "small" piled ridiculously high in the same plastic Day-Glo-colored tulip cup used by most places in town. I have not seen the $6 large, which you are warned on the menu not to split, though many ordered smalls. Housemade coconut ice cream on top? That's $1.25 more. A word of advice, though: Hang on tight to your cup. It's so heavy with ice that tipping is all too easy, and you'll be left with a saddening ice amputee. "I tried to warn you," said my server, before offering to top off my cup.
14900 SW Barrows Road, Suite 101, Beaverton, 503-530-8713.
Snow is the new Asian variant that's suddenly popular in Brooklyn and L.A.—but to get it in Portland, we had to travel to Beaverton to brand-new Mo Cha Tea House, a bright Taiwanese dessert place brimming with teenagers. Taiwanese-style snow is like shave ice, in that it's ice and it's shaved—but instead of just water, it's frozen with 1 percent milk, with flavor already added. When the machine shaves the ice, the creaminess of the milk keeps it together, so it comes out in folded ice-milk ribbons, like a mille-feuille of ice and cream. It's available in flavors like matcha with the earthy Asian adzuki bean added—both delectable and strange in turn, with a texture somewhere between whipped air and Play-Doh.
2454 E Burnside St., 503-445-6101, ate-oh-ate.com.
Ate-Oh-Ate's shave-ice texture is oddly variable, from silken to crunch. At happy hour from 4 to 6 pm daily, it'll make you a heaping pyramid of shave ice soaked in rum for a mere $5 (it's $8 otherwise, $4 for the shave ice and $4 for the rum).
It's also one of the few places to offer traditional adzuki beans as an earthy counterpoint. But if you're getting the open-air rum slushie, you want a flavor that'll support the rum. Try the P.O.G. or the mango, and let the kids—if you've got them—crunch down the red-yellow-blue rainbow flavor: "You can't have Mommy's shave ice, sorry. This is shave ice for grown-ups."
624 NE Killingsworth St., 503-358-1223.
The Piedmont pod's Ice Mama is a pretty pink cart with little pictures of Jesse Owens and Zora Neale Hurston decorating the window's edge. It's the only shave-ice spot we're aware of in inner North and Northeast. The cart's exuberantly friendly owner, Saqualla Allen, serves about 20 different flavors, including cotton candy, something called "Miss Bliss" and Key lime pie, her favorite. It's $4 for 4 ounces, low in the tulip cup, and $5 for a bigger heap. But I'd recommend getting the rich, custardy ice cream—a buck extra—atop a small cup. The ice is a bit granular and snow-coney on its own, but the creaminess and crunch and fruit flavor all together are brilliant.
5205 SE Foster Road, 971-352-7989.
This humble Hawaiian-style cart at Carts on Foster has the largest portions of anybody in town. Served in a black plastic boat of a bowl, the cherry shave ice—the owner's personal recommendation—might as well have been the Three Sisters peaks all together, a sledge of ice and syrup for $5, with consistency in the middle ground of shave-ice shops. As I ate, the owner listened politely while a chef from the island gave him pointers on his mac salad: No mustard, Best Foods-brand mayonnaise, loads of white pepper, rinse the pasta in cider vinegar, and get your sweetness from carrots and celery.
4262 SE Belmont St., Portland, 503-622-9090.
Herb's Hawaiian Shave Ice is currently operating out of Herb's Mac and Cheese cart; it used to be two different carts right next to each other. It uses the same exact shave-ice maker as Ohana for its stacked $4 shave-ice mountains, but somehow the texture on its face-tatted maker's preferred cherry was as much snow cone as shave, a cardinal shave-ice sin. That said, Herb's throws on so much syrup it half-melts the ice into sweet goo, which is its own kind of smoothness.