Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha (Honolulu, HI)

The next day in Hawaii, we decided that it was time to go on a hike, and ended up settling on the Kuli`ou`ou Ridge Trail in the Eastern part of the island. It’s a pleasant hike, climbing from a residential neighborhod through some tropical forest, then pines, and then above tree line up to a pleasant ridge overlooking Waimanalo. It was a thoroughly enjoyable hike, and it left us craving a cold, refreshing snack. That’s exactly what shave ice was invented for.

Looking up shave ice places on the internet, there’s one clearly popular place (Waiola Shave Ice), but there was another places nearby with particularly good reviews on several sites, the rather cool-named Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha (HOPA).

Nestled into a shopping center set back from the street in the Hawaii Kai part of town, Uncle Clay’s is not the sort of place you’d happen across except by accident without the internet’s help. Entering the place, you immediately get a hearty greeting (on our first visit, from Uncle Clay himself). On the face of it, it looks like your basic shave ice place, with one person shaving the ice, and another applying the syrups, toppings, and the like.

Right away, you can tell that things are a little different at Uncle Clay’s. One of the experiences at most shave ice places is the basking in the bright colors of the syrups (often with the heavy use of food coloring). The palette at the House of Pure Aloha is distinctly more muted, and that’s because all the of the flavors here are house-made syrups, ranging from the simple (pineapple, mango, guava, and strawberry), to the more Hawaiian (Li Hing, coconut, and lilikoi), and even some house flavors like kalespin (a mix of kale and spinach) and even horchata. Quite a good selection, and all of them are made in-house from organic ingredients. The result is quite tasty, even if it mutes the colors a bit.

Myself, I opted for a shave ice with a combination of three syrups: pineapple, horchata, and kalespin (those that know me well know that I have a hard time passing up kale). The result was a splendid bowl of shave ice. First, the ice itself is properly shaved, with a nice fine texture (alas, all too many places don’t do a good shave, and give you something more akin to a sno cone, but the House of Pure Aloha is also the house of properly shaved ice). And then the syrups were dialed in. My pineapple was sweet and tangy, but not cloying, with little pulpy bits. The horchata was also the perfect embodiment of a classic Mexican horchata: a pleasant surprise since “Mexican” is probably the culinary Achilles’ heel of Hawaii. And the kalespin? A perfectly done syrup of kale and spinach with just enough apple and honey to sweeten it, and it was pleasantly herbal and refreshing. Most importantly, this combination also worked out well. This was, without a doubt, the best shave ice I’ve ever had.

Carol did well, too, with a nice combination of mango and coconut. The mango was rich and pleasant (and unlike most of the other syrups, this one did retain the bright color), with a perfect mango flavor. The coconut ended up being similar to the horchata: sweet but not cloying, adding almost a nutty almond-ish flavor to it.

But the real surprise of Uncle Clay’s was how amazingly friendly the place was. Uncle Clay personally welcomed everyone that came in the door, said hello to regulars, and for unfamiliar faces, asked where people were from. It was one of the most welcoming places I’ve been for a snack, a massive shock from the New England surliness I’m accustomed to, and even a distinctly friendlier welcome than the typical “10% aloha blend” welcome most places give to tourists.

There are a lot of shave ice places in Hawaii, but both the quality and unique varieties of the syrups set the House of Pure Aloha apart. Add in one of the friendliest shopkeepers on Oahu, and it’s a great place to stop (we ended up stopping in a second time a week later).

3 Responses

  1. David Olschki 24 Feb 2014 at 21:34 #

    See, you had to go and mention that they offer Li Hing without trying it and conveying how it was. That’s just wrong. Now I have to hunt down the opinions of others, as well as add “Uncle Clay’s HOPA Li Hing Shaved Ice” to my culinary bucket list. Thanks a lot.

    (I’ve been to Hawaii once, when I was six. I have two distinct memories of this trip: gnawing on a piece of sugarcane that we hacked from a roadside plantation, and discovering li hing mui. I nursed the package we brought back for a couple years, and spent the ensuing thirty years speaking of it in hushed tones before I finally discovered a local supply. It was one of the only things in my life that was, in fact, as good as I remembered.)

    • kaszeta 24 Feb 2014 at 22:01 #

      I can’t report on the li hing flavor, since I didn’t try it.

      But like you, I adore li hing, especially sprinkled over fresh fruit. I ended up bringing several packets of it back with me this time. I’m sure someplace around the greater Boston area sells it, but it will take some research to find it.

  2. Carol 25 Feb 2014 at 14:34 #

    Don’t forget the dream sauce. Any shave ice can be topped with this and adds a little extra deliciousness. It’s a sauce made from sweetened condensed milk and a few spices and added a nice creamy quality to the coconut syrup.

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