taiwanese shaved ice action

ok. so this ain't taiwanese style but it's a pretty picture of red beans and grean tea toppings that i grabbed off the web. it looks like japanese style to me.

In the heat of the Taiwanese tropical summers, there was no better treat than the ubiquitous shaved ice dessert available in mom and pop shops located throughout the city of Taipei. The huge white flags with the Chinese “ice” symbol always perked me up after hours of walking the mean streets of Taipei with my mom. Every Pacific Rim island and small country (including Hawaii) seem to have their own special array of shaved ice toppings that constitute the discriminating palate of local cuisine. My favorite 3 flavors out of the Taiwanese palate have always been either small red or green bean (red bean preferred if given a choice and limitation on the number of toppings) and boiled peanuts. (FYI: grass jelly, yellow jelly, mini tapioca balls, mango pudding, plump wheat meal, random tropical fruit and apparently little mochi balls are other common toppings) The dishes are sold as three or four toppings options, depending on the complexity of flavors you prefer. Often, at least in Taiwan back in the day, the toppings are placed in the plate first, then the shaved ice then a generous squirt of sugar/cane water. Apparently, condensed milk is also added in the places I’ve tried around LA.

First, what should one look for in a good Taiwanese shaved ice experience? I look for general cleanliness of ambiance, a sufficiently sized to-go or for-here container that can handle vigorous mixing of ice with toppings, generous helpings of the three only lightly-sweetened toppings (my choice for number of toppings), a good amount of sugar water for binding the overall dish and a balanced serving of condensed milk. And of course, the value to price ratio is very important because the shaved ice treat is really casual “street” food and its price should remain as such.

For a long time I’ve relied on my weekly trips to Alhambra for playing co-ed volleyball as the opportunity for grabbing a shaved ice at the Shau-Mei cafeteria style Taiwanese/Other Chinese food restaurant in Monterey Park (located at the northeast corner of Garfield and Garvey). The Shau-Mei shaved ice is a reliable and convenient treat, and thus, the overall winner of the three types of dishes I’ve tried thus far. I’m sure there are plenty of other places in the area that serve shaved ice (including the numerous hong kong type cafes and Taiwanese “small eats” dim sum parlours) but I’m a gal that sticks with unfussy stuff that I know and is reliable. The Shau-Mei shaved ice in Alhambra just up the street at the northeast corner of Garfield and Valley Blvd is EXACTLY the same so kudos to them for at least doing the franchising fordist system effectively.

For $2.75 you get a huge serving of shaved ice on a medium sized clear dessert plate with three ample toppings, sugar water and generous squirts of condensed milk. At Shau-Mei I get the small red bean, boiled peanuts, and small pink and white mochi balls (similar to those in the picture). I don’t recall mochi balls as something that I used to see in the topping choices in Taiwan but since I love them so outside of shaved ice, indeed they are just as tasty WITH shaved ice. What’s even better about the Shau-Mei experience is that the shaved ice line is SEPARATE from their hot food line and THUS you can just walk up to the shaved ice counter and order QUICK (no need to sniff pig’s feet and chow mein before dining on the ice). What service! Do the ordering in English, Mandarin, Taiwanese or Cantonese, your pick (maybe even Fujianese and Shanhainese). They have huge spoons that shovel lots of each of the toppings I pick and the wetness made to the ice by the sugar water and ratio to the condense milk is just enough to add enough sweetness to the already sweet toppings. The boiled peanuts are just like they should be, wet, soft and sweet. Clearly the all-around winner.

A second runner-up for me has been the shaved ice at the Taiwanese-run boba joint, Volcano Tea, the Japanese strip of Sawtelle in West Los Angeles (located just north of Olympic). I’ve been able to study there while nursing an adequately sized shaved ice in a big styrofoam cup (you get the cup whether you dine in or take out). There I get small red bean, small green bean and boiled peanuts. The toppings are all made the “right” way as I remembered in Taipei shaved ice shops. I would only say that they need to have sugar water in it rather than drench the ice in tons of condensed milk to compensate because the ice is not as wet as it should be to make for convenient mixing of all toppings. Next time I would just ask them to “hold the condensed milk” (in English or Mandarin if you’d like). They also have the various typical toppings displayed on their backlit menu on the wall. The price is a little more than $3.00…but hey, what can you do when you’re paying for Westside real estate.

And finally, the place that I will never go back to for shaved ice, Relaxtation on the UCLA campus (and probably not at other Relaxtations either). On a whim, I was hungry while on campus and was craving the icy snack. Not on the regular menu, I spotted a small sign standing on the counter that said “shaved ice available here” and I went for it. Not having the toppings listed, I asked for my usual: red and green bean and peanuts. BAD CALL. I got this small sized styrofoam cup packed with dry peanuts, overly sweetened mushy beans and even dryer shaved ice (that wasn’t even shaved that finely…more like ice gravel). The dry peanuts were the WORSE part of the experience because they were like the salty roasted planter’s peanuts poor undergrown stepcousin. I couldn’t’ believe it was even possible to have my mouth feel even less refreshed AFTER I had the shaved ice. After a few bites, I quit and just trashed the thing. What’s worse is the thing cost me around or more than $3.50, money that I will never see again. What a rip-off.

I know there are DEFINITELY other shaved ice frontiers that I have yet to explore…but for now, my needs are met with the choices I’ve made. A curious option that has come up is a shaved ice offering at the Green Tea Terrace on Westwood Blvd, in Westwood. It’s my favorite place for Japanese macha green tea boba with soy milk but they also make yummy smoothies and are offering this Japanese style kakigori. But it will unlikely take the space I have in my heart for the Taiwanese style fare.


Blogger illewminator said...

nice! thorough, well-researched, well-documented... now i've got a craving for some delicious shave ice! (but i must say: i prefer mine hawaiian-style -- with red beans and condensed milk AND a big scoop of ice cream at the bottom... yum!)

8/17/2004 4:58 PM  
Blogger J said...

ah! with ice cream?! too creamy for me. might as well get a smoothie!....thanks for the kudos. i only like to write what i feel deeply about...and shaved ice is one such topic. ;)

8/17/2004 11:33 PM  
Blogger grant said...

nice entry. i fear that my slot is in danger if i do not produce soon. =)
that's okay, if i'm replaced /w the great "J", then it's all good.
is the shau mei on garfield & valley back? that was the one i fell in love with way back when, but last i checked, it was gone.
my personal favorite taiwanese style combo is lychee/fruit/mochi /w milk. yum! i haven't had it for ages!
altho, i do agree /w gena...i think my true favorite is hawaiian style...strawberry milk w/ vanilla ice cream...a la matsumotos in haleiwa.

8/17/2004 11:51 PM  
Blogger NuttinButGlutton said...

I prefer the white special. Lychee, almond jello and a rotation of mochi or oatmeal (called datmeal on the menu), and milk.

Occasionally I go with a double dose of lychee, but an insider tip, don't double up on the first round, they cheap you out by only giving you 1 1/2 rather than 2x. Go with lychee (count them) then go with another topping, then look around and then choose lychee (make sure you get the same number as the first time)

8/18/2004 8:09 AM  
Blogger J said...

nice. i think the double topping suggestion is quite observant and truly on the next level of expert grub club commentary. we should only wish our work can consistently reach such heights. bravo.

8/19/2004 9:14 PM  

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