Smart Mouth: A Visit to Matsumoto Shave Ice on Oahu's North Shore

Stanley Matsumoto, in background, is a fixture at Matsumoto Shave Ice.
Stanley Matsumoto, in background, is a fixture at Matsumoto Shave Ice. (By Andrea Sachs -- The Washington Post)
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Sunday, July 12, 2009

There are two ways to approach the line that wriggles out the door of Matsumoto Shave Ice and hooks left along the sidewalk: You can (1) moan and complain about the wait under the hot Hawaiian sun or (2) use the free time to pick your flavors and visualize the overall composition of the supreme frozen treat. (Option 3 -- skipping the queue -- is not an option.)

"Matsumoto's has been here forever. It's an institution," said Brian Zagami, a banker who lives in Honolulu and drives to Haleiwa on Oahu's North Shore for his fix. "So many places are changing in Hawaii. It's nice to come to a place that's static."

Shave ice is a local specialty found throughout the islands, but Matsumoto stands out for being the oldest continuously run operation on Oahu, going back more than half a century. "When you come to Hawaii, you have to eat shave ice, Leonard's malasada and poke," said owner Stanley Matsumoto, who runs the operation with his wife, Noriko. "It's part of the tradition of Hawaii." (Another tradition: Using the pidgin English variant of "shaved ice," which omits the "d.")

The line outside the store is a common sight on Kamehameha Highway, and on a weekend afternoon, it was moving along like a snail in sneakers. After 30 minutes, Zagami had in hand a pineapple- and coconut-flavored ice atop vanilla ice cream and azuki beans. "You get in line and you talk story," he said before taking a much-anticipated first bite.

If you need some good story during the wait -- or shave ice advice -- flag down Matsumoto, a store fixture often found working the line or straightening the stacks of souvenirs. The man with floppy black hair, matching mustache and surfer shorts paired with flip-flops is the son of the Japanese American couple who created Matsumoto Shave Ice out of a humble grocery store. He is also a master ice shaver and a beguiling raconteur.

His tale begins in the 1950s, when Haleiwa was a low-key coastal town surrounded by sugar and pineapple plantations and populated by old Hawaiian families and Japanese immigrants and their offspring. (The big-wave surfers and free-lovin' hippies arrived a decade later.) Mamoru Matsumoto was born in Hawaii, lived in Japan during his formative years, then returned to the islands, where he met his wife, Helen, and opened M. Matsumoto grocery store in 1951. "I remember my parents didn't have a lot to sell. But his dream was to have his own business and send his three kids to college," said Matsumoto, the youngest of the brood and now a father of three teens. "They never trusted me with the store. I'd put my board in the truck during deliveries and go surfing instead."

In 1956, the family expanded the business to include the frozen treat that's known as kakigori in its place of origin, Japan. "The Japanese immigrants moved here with ice shavers," he said. "The equipment works like a wood planer." When Stanley Matsumoto took over in 1976, he bumped the canned goods to make space for the growing shave ice (and Matsumoto T-shirt) enterprise, which had been garnering attention from the Japanese media and visiting celebrities from both sides of the Pacific (among them: Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, sumo wrestler Konishiki and local musician Jack Johnson). In the busy summer season, the shop makes 1,000 ices a day; when school's in session, the number drops to 500. "My father would be so happy with how the store has gotten so big," said Matsumoto, whose father died in 1994 at age 85. "But he'd probably scream at us for changing everything."

Shave ice greatly differs from its stateside frozen counterpart. "People in Hawaii get very upset if you confuse it with the snow cone," said Rachel Laudan, a culinary historian and author who lived in Hawaii for 10 years. "What really makes it good and different from the snow cone is the texture. The syrup floats down through the layers, which have to be feather-light."

The mainland snack, as most sweaty and sticky kids know, is basically a ball of crushed ice doused in tart or sweet flavors and served in a paper cone; its consistency is similar to the ice released from soda dispensers. Shave ice, by comparison, is more of a culinary art: The machinery's rotating blade whittles down a three-pound block of ice, creating shavings as delicate as snowflake crystals. From there, Matsumoto's staff, working in an assembly line, takes a large plastic holder and drops in sweetened red azuki beans (optional) and vanilla ice cream (also optional), then plops down the frozen orb, which has been molded into a softball shape. The treat advances to the flavoring station, rows of glass bottles glistening with extracts covering a rainbow of tastes: fruity (banana, green apple, honeydew), tropical (mango, guava), candy-sweet (bubble gum, cotton candy, creamsicle), cocktail hour (piƱa colada), exotic (dried salty plum, passion fruit). For the final flourish, the colorful confection is coated with condensed milk.

Eating the icy skyscraper takes as much orchestration and skill as building one. "You got to work your way down and watch the colors change," Matsumoto advised, pointing to a thawing Rainbow special (lemon, pineapple and strawberry). Patrons have at their disposal a spoon and a straw to suck up the syrup that pools on the bottom. Yet when the end is in sight, you have no choice but to toss back your head and drain the dregs. Prepare for a rivulet of sweetness.

At this point, you can go for a second round or return another day. With the exception of major holidays, the store is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The line starts forming around noon and doesn't peter out until the doors are physically shuttered. Of course, that doesn't stop last-minute stragglers from begging for a treat.

"I saw the line at 5 p.m., so we decided to come back," said Californian Karen Kaiser, who arrived 15 minutes after closing time. "How long did we press our noses at the window?"

Long enough for Matsumoto to return to the kitchen for the last two shave ices of the night.

-- Andrea Sachs

Matsumoto Shave Ice (808-637-4827, is at 66-087 Kamehameha Hwy. in Haleiwa, on Oahu's North Shore. Cost: $2 for six ounces, $2.50 with beans or ice cream, $3 with both; $2.25 for eight ounces, $2.75 with beans or ice cream, $3.25 for both. Condensed milk is an additional 50 cents.

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