Here it is: the definitive list.
A topic of this importance is not to be taken lightly, so I can assure you that I have done some very thorough research before posting this list.
If you visit O’ahu, you will probably be told that Matsumoto’s is the place to visit for your shave ice because, well, that’s where everyone goes. I think, however, that a visitor who only tastes the shave ice at Matsumoto’s is cheated. There’s just so much better out there.
Number 1: Shimazu
Shimazu’s cups come big, bigger and huge (get the smallest; believe me it’s enough). They have a size known as “The Larry,” but no-one I know of has ever attempted it. The flavors at Shimazu are the most inventive I’ve come across: they have creme brulee, mojito, red velvet, even durian (though you may be ordered to eat it far outside the store).
The texture is fluffy like cotton, with just a little crunch, and optional fillings and toppings include standards like mochi and red bean, as well as haupia (coconut cream).
My favorite is the sour apple li hing mui, with mochi — although Shimazu’s mochi could be better, and I don’t like that it is cubed.
The only cons are the usual: almost no parking: long lines.
Number 2: City Cafe
At City Cafe you can choose from regular Hawaiian-style or Taiwanese-style shave ice. This was the first place I ever tried Taiwanese shave ice, and, although Sweet Home Cafe is good, I think it is still the best.
The ice is shaved fine and covered in brown sugar and condensed milk. Toppings include taro, tapioca, pudding and big, firm mochi balls — I think the mochi here is the best.
It’s a small space but I’ve never had a problem finding seating or parking. The owners are quite lovely too.
Wailoa was my favorite for a long time. Their ice is shaved to the finest consistency I have found on the island. The selection of syrups and toppings is small but adequate — I usually get the li hing and lilikoi with mochi. The cups are pretty small for the price and service can be brusque, otherwise there’s not much to fault Waiola.
Honoray Mention: Matsumoto’s
It’s definitely not the best, I find the ice too thick and crunchy, but you have to visit Matsumoto’s at least for the atmosphere. A North Shore institution, it’s been in the same spot since 1951 and is almost always packed with tourists. Braving the long line and finding a spot on the bench outside is just one of those things you have to do on the North Shore.