There are a million international varieties of shaved ice, but Taiwanese-style holds a special place in my heart.
It's not quite an American classic—yet. While some have fruit toppings, you'll traditionally find sweetened beans, jellies, taro root, and related goodies, tied together with a generous drizzle of brown sugar syrup, and if you're lucky, a hit of oh-so-sweet condensed milk. Another variety, as of yet undiscovered in New York, uses milk ice for a finer shave.
Done right, it's a revelation. The ice should be fine and fluffy—neither too crunchy, nor too dense and wet—and blend seamlessly into the toppings. Those might range from the home-cooked flavor of sweetened azuki beans to a quivering mound of pudding or a mass of chewy black tapioca pearls. As you plow away, condensed milk-laced spoonfuls of toppings alternate with rich, sugar-laced slush. Great Taiwanese shaved ice is substantive and refreshing, a perfect meal in itself.
No wonder I was determined to find New York City's perfect bowl. I pared the list to 11 spots in Manhattan and Flushing. I took on Manhattan on day one, and did all the Flushing stops on day two.
This is not food for wimps. When I picked up a mountainous platter of beans at Taiwan Ice, at least three people stopped to comment on how fattening (or at least enormous) it looked. "You're going to eat that all by yourself?" one well-meaning bystander asked.
After downing a few spoonfuls of beans at the 11th, and last, stop on Flushing's Northern Boulevard—Mellie's—I began to realize why so few people had attempted an exhaustive tour before. My brain and stomach began to spin in a bean-clogged haze.
For Manhattanites, I bear bad news: nothing compares to Flushing's best. But there are a few options. In Chinatown, there's Vivi Bubble Tea, Ten Ren, and Excellent Pork Chop House. On St. Mark's Place, there's Dumpling Man, although the syrupy bean topping is sweeter than anything in either borough. But if you want the real deal, take the LIRR to Flushing. You'll thank me.
- 10 points for ice: Points are awarded for light and finely ground beds of ice, points off for anything gravelly, crunchy, or chunky.
- 10 points for toppings: Points for quality, flavor, and variety offered. I also make note of whether they offer fruit toppings for the non-bean-converts, although this doesn't factor into scoring.
- 5 points for syrup: Do they put on enough? Is the condensed milk, if offered, tasty or cloyingly sweet?
While I gave my best shot sampling 11, nine made it into my final list.
Best Shaved Ice Countdown...
9. Vivi Bubble Tea 8. Dumpling Man 7. Ten Ren 6. Excellent Pork Chop House 5. Mellie's 4. S&C Shaved Ice 3. Taiwan Ice at Taipan Bakery 2. Corner 28
And the Winner Is... Ice Fire Land in Flushing.
Price: $3.90 for a reasonably sized portion.
Ice: 10 points. Not only super-finely shaved and fluffy as rabbit down, but also ingeniously placed on top of the toppings (er, bottomings). This means a lighter and more refreshing start as you spoon your way through. If you order condensed milk, it's drizzled across the top of the ice.
Toppings: 10 points. Mixed together at the bottom rather than lumped separately, an risky move. The menu offers a good slate of traditional options (though no fruit), including my picks: red bean, corn, and peanuts, all well-cooked and sweetened.
Syrup: 4 points. Excellent condensed milk topping on top, sweet and nutty, and a good dousing of brown sugar syrup.
Total points: 24 points. A favorite. A mystical, melting melange of the perfect ice and well-made toppings that manages to be refreshing and light, despite all the beans. If you want to warm up beforehand, they also offer hotpot, hence "Ice Fire Land."
13511 40th Road, Flushing NY 11354. (map); 718-886-8600