Standing in the South Florida sun alongside Smathers Beach on Key West, we figured out why Hawaiian shave ice is addictive. Whatever favorite fruit flavors you choose (you can select two or three from among thirty at McDuffy’s) are squirted into a big cup full of ice that is shaved so finely and packed so firmly that it feels like a block of edible silk. The flavors are applied generously, each of them twice – when the cup is half-full of ice, then again when it is completely piled high. Still, no matter how much of that sweet stuff saturates the ice, it starts melting towards the bottom as soon as Jeannie McDuffy hands it out the order window. If you eat it with a spoon from the top as would be normal, the topmost layer of ice keeps losing its flavor as the syrup drifts towards the bottom. So you spoon deeper and faster, always hunting for the most flavor and yet getting not quite enough of it. If it’s a hot summer day the ice keeps melting and the flavor lode keeps drifting towards the bottom of the cup.
Such a delicious predicament can be avoided altogether if you use a straw and suck the icy melted slush from the bottom of the cup, where the flavor is intense. But it is our opinion that consuming shaved ice through a straw circumvents one of its best qualities: the smooth, tender texture of packed ice that is best savored by the spoonful.
In any case, if you are persistent and eat fast enough, you will soon get to the bottom of the Styrofoam cup where, hopefully, the ice is still icy and the flavor or flavors you have chosen are concentrated with no place left to drip.
There are plenty of shave ice trucks along the water in Key West and, frankly, we haven’t tried every one of them (although it would be a pleasure doing so). We particularly like McDuffy’s because of the scrupulous attention given to the construction of each cup as well as because of its broad flavor selection. Who can resist “tiger’s blood” (strawberry and coconut) and “wedding cake”? Also, Jeannie McDuffy is really concerned that her customers get maximum pleasure from what she serves. We had an enlightening discussion with her about the pros and cons of adding condensed and evaporated milk to the flavor mix, transforming shave ice into something more like ice cream (not a bad idea, we concluded). Finally, what makes this particular shave ice experience extra-nice is its longevity. Jeannie McDuffy has been here since the 1970s; and although she has a permit to keep her truck along S. Roosevelt Rd., she needs to leave the air conditioned comfort of the little vehicle every couple of hours to put quarters in the parking meter one space up, where she keeps her car.