In Hawaii, summertime is often a combination of sun, surf and shave ice. The Bay Area’s recent heatwave might make you feel like you’re in Hawaii, but it’s a bit of a drive from the East Bay for big waves, and island-style shave ice is nowhere to be found unless you happen to be following the Instagram account of Always Aloha Shave Ice Co.
Always Aloha is a barely year-old, Oakland-based small business that sells shave ice (it’s commonly spelled without the “d” in Hawaii) as a pop-up on weekends. Just last weekend it popped up at Soba Ichi in West Oakland.
O’ahu native Stephanie Iwasaki founded Always Aloha a bit by accident. She and her boyfriend moved to San Francisco to study graphic design at the Academy of Arts in 2012, but after graduating four years later, her father in Hawaii suggested she take off his hands a shave ice machine that had been collecting dust in the garage.
“My dad likes to keep things instead of throwing things out,” Iwasaki said. Her father, who never made shave ice in his life, inherited the machine from a friend. Iwasaki and her boyfriend, Cory Shigeta, taught themselves to make the right consistency of fine ice shavings that reminded them of what they ate growing up in Hawaii.
“It was just practice, just trial and error. With repetition we got better,” she said.
Versions of the frozen treat are popular in Asian countries like Korea, Japan and Taiwan, where shave ice is thought to have originated. Shave ice arrived in Hawaii with the Japanese immigrants during the plantation days and it wasn’t long before multi-colored flavored syrups poured over fluffy, snow-like ice became a signature treat on the islands.
Over the years, other items were added to Hawaiian shave ice, such as a scoop of vanilla ice cream, azuki red beans and sweetened condensed milk.
Operating as a pop-up, Always Aloha has a limited menu, typically three or four flavors, so Iwasaki can manage her inventory. There’s no mixing of flavors, like they do the “rainbow” flavor in Hawaii. And unlike most Hawaii shave ice shacks that use concentrated syrups, Iwasaki makes all her syrups from scratch.
“I grew up with the concentrate, traditional-style shave ice, and I’ll always eat that,” she said. “But I just feel Californians want it fresh and real.”
At last weekend’s Soba Ichi pop-up, the home-made flavors included strawberry cream, strawberry mint, “orange dream” and signature “POG.” The last flavor is a homage to the popular juice drink in Hawaii nicknamed “POG” that translate to passion fruit, orange and guava. To make that flavor, Iwasaki had to find a lot of fresh passion fruit to shell and juice.
Iwasaki also tops her shave ice creations with fresh mochi, fresh strawberries or a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk.
Always Aloha pops up on weekends at spots around the East Bay such as Soba Ichi and Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley. This summer, Iwasaki says she’s popping up a few times across the bay in San Francisco.
“Last season we stayed (at Soba Ichi) and it was comfortable. We were getting our feet wet,” she said. “This season we’re trying to get out more and get our name known.”
Iwasaki’s dream is to eventually open a brick-and-mortar spot similar to the neighborhood mom-and-pop shops in Hawaii known as “crack seed” stores. Crack seed is a category of snacks, often Asian-style dried fruits like plums and olives.
So far, the reception has been positive for Always Aloha’s creations. “We’ve been getting so much support from everyone,” Iwasaki said. “We’ve got lots of regulars from last season and they still come looking for us. So it’s pretty awesome.”
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.