When I was an impressionable sixth grader, my parents took the family to visit an aunt and uncle living in Hawaii. During the visit, I was drawn to all things gecko and all things Day-Glo. I was also drawn to my aunt’s command of island slang.
She taught me how to distinguish between good shaved ice (da kine) and bad shaved ice (junk). You didn’t want big chunks of ice that required chewing to break down. That was junk ice. You wanted the more refined, finely shaved stuff, the da kine ice. It was better at carrying flavors. On that trip, I became a shaved ice connoisseur.
Twenty-some years later, I had pretty much forgotten all about the shaved ice, da kine or otherwise. Then my friend Anne mentioned she had sampled Asian shaved ice at a new restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. I made a note to head to the restaurant, Namu Gaji, when I was in the neighborhood.
Summer is an inauspicious time for enjoying shaved ice in San Francisco. It had been was a miserably cold weekend in the Bay Area–colder, even, than average weekend in August–when my friend Nora paid me a visit. On the last afternoon of her visit, the sun peaked out at 3 p.m. around Dolores Park, where we were heading. Finally, time for shaved ice.
Located on the corner of 18th and Dolores Street, Namu Gaji serves a sort of Korean and sort of Californian menu without actually being a Korean or Californian restaurant. It stays casual during the day and dresses up at night, serving a menu that celebrates vegetables, pickles, octopus, and the like. And in the afternoon, it sets up a shaved ice stand in the entrance.
Bypassing the line for cones at Bi-Rite Creamery (right next door), we walked into Namu Gaji and stood by a big block of ice sitting on a shaving contraption. This was going to be hand-cranked shaved ice, the most da kine ice out there.
We read the blackboard for the flavors and then ordered a couple of them to taste. I went classic: coffee with tapioca pearls, condensed milk, and cocoa nibs, though I was torn between that one and the chocolate-coconut-strawberry number. Nora went riskier, ordering shaved ice with strawberries and black sesame brittle.
While it took a little while for the server to crank the ice and garnish it with toppings, it didn’t take us long to eat it. (Finely shaved ice has a very short window for consumption. This might be its only downfall.) We both loved the varied textures, from the tapioca balls, the lightly crunchy ice, the sesame, the cocoa nibs. We also loved that we were enjoying this treat while everyone else was still waiting in line for ice cream at Bi-Rite.
When Nora returned home to L.A., she heard a story on the local NPR station about shaved ice and its variations. I wholeheartedly encourage this trend to continue.