Newcomers to the frozen treat find the best there is…
by Blake Desaulniers
Long having been a frequent visitor to The Valley Isle, I’ve seen the array of kiosks, trucks, and store fronts offering shave ice. Not a part of my childhood, not once had shaved ice ever chilled my taste buds. I equated it with cotton candy, not a dietary staple, and not even a rare treat in adult years.
September 2015 turned out to be an exceptionally hot and humid month on Maui. In fact, the whole summer had been a real cooker, they said. At least three degrees hotter on average than any year since records were kept, post WWII.
You started to sweat the moment you walked up the jetway at Kahului. The usual pleasant rush of warm and fragrant air that you learn to anticipate after having been on the island a few times, had been shoved aside by four hurricanes out of the south Pacific that passed east of the islands and north, and cut off the usual trade winds that blow cloud away from Maui. The air, instead, hung almost unbreathable, heavy and thick, You started to sweat before you stepped into the arrival lounge and it didn’t stop.
We’d been on island several days and had been out to the upcountry for a look around, and to shoot some new photos. Afterwards, we stopped in at Paia to find some food. Linda wanted a smoothie, and I thought that would be OK. But when we walked into the Paia PicNic company, we were too late in the day to get one.
We walked a few yards up the street, and past one of the multitude shave ice vendors you’ll find on the island. A few more yards and we knew we’d be unable to get smoothies. What about a shaved ice, I asked.
Linda crinkled her nose—the same reaction I’ve had when briefly thoughts of shave ice crossed my mind.
Yet despite our gut reaction to the idea at first blush, we turned into the shave ice shop. It was the extraordinary heat that drove us to do it, I have no doubt.
As it turned out, shave ice is not a bad treat at all. A big enough hit of cold to lower your core temperature a bit. Shave ice, impregnated and saturated with colorful, intense, tropically flavored syrups. We liked it. It was good. How come we’d never tried it before?
That one experience set us on a bit of a mission. We would seek out the best shave ice in Hawaii.
The shave ice in Paia was pretty good. We were excited. I happened to mention this to a manicurist in Kihei. She pointed us to Ululani’s at the north end of South Kihei Road. An excellent recommendation, as it turned out.
Ulanani’s is rated the best shave ice on Maui and with good reason. The shave ice is cold, fine and drenched with the perfect amount of flavor. I’m not a coconut fan, having been subjected to the dried, candied junk sold in North America, mainly as a confection, and the stale coconuts offered in grocery stores and at produce stands.
But coconut on Maui is a different thing. Fresh drinking coconuts sold at roadside are full of mild, slightly sweet coconut water. The flesh of these coconuts is delicate and light, not at all like the products we get on the mainland.
So coconut flavoring in Maui has to meet a high standard.
The coconut syrup they use at Ululani’s isn’t like the coconut sold at other shave ice shops. It’s creamy, as though they mix real coconut milk into the syrup, instead of just recreating the flavor. Ululani’s is the only shop we found that uses this syrup and it makes a delightful difference.
Ululani’s offers the same wide range of flavors you’ll find at most shave ice stands. You can choose any three to go on your order, also typical of most shave ice outlets.
Ululani’s has outdoor picnic tables with holes cut in the top so you can put your bowl of shave ice down securely. You won’t have to chase it around the table and make a big sticky mess. That’s nice.
We tried a number of other shave ice shops in Kihei and in Kona on the Big Island. None of them match the quality of Ululani’s.
While still offering a cold, sweet treat these shops served ice that was variously not shaved fine enough, or was not cold enough, so that when the server poured on the syrup the ice turned slushy, and lost that wonderful fresh fallen packed powder snow appeal that you get at Ululani’s.
Still, all in all, shave ice turns out to be just what the doctor ordered on a hot afternoon after an 80 km bike ride, or after cooking on the beach. We are now becoming habituated, and connoisseurs of the treat. And so far, we have yet to see better than Ululani’s on South Kihei Road in Maui.