Regional Snow Cones
From New Orleans’s snoball to Hawaii’s shave ice to the raspados found in Los Angeles, our guide to America’s regional snow cones.
We can thank ice crushing machines–powerful enough to reduce blocks of ice into coarse pebbles in a matter of seconds–for the classic snow cone’s delightfully crunchy bite. In 1919 a Dallas resident named Samuel Bert introduced snow cones at the Texas State Fair, and a year later patented the first automated ice crusher, helping to solidify the treat’s place in American dessert history. True to their name, classic snow cones typically come served in waxed paper cones, which catch the sweet syrups that drip through the ice as you eat.
New Orleanians fight off the hot, swampy heat of summer with a snowball (also spelled “snoball”). Unlike snow cones, snowballs are made of shaved ice, not crushed, and have a fine, powdery texture. Local inventor Ernest Hansen is credited with patenting a motorized ice shaver in 1934, which he used to shave artificial snow from blocks of ice at his store Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, which still opens its doors each summer from May through August. New Orleans’s snowballs come heavily doused with syrup — flavored with everything from root beer to honeydew and bubblegum — and are served with a straw and a spoon. Baltimore also has a strong snowball tradition that predates New Orleans’. There, the icy concoctions have been a summer staple since the late 19th century, and were once a common movie theatre snack. Cherry, chocolate and egg custard (made of vanilla, sugar and eggs) top the list of most popular flavors at shops like the beloved Walther Gardens, and locals know to ask for a dollop of marshmallow cream.
Hawaiian shave ice has a soft, almost slushy consistency, thanks to superfine ice flakes that readily absorb the syrup poured overtop. Shave ice came to Hawaii with Japanese sugar plantation workers who migrated there in the 1920s and 30s, and quickly became an island favorite (in Japan the dessert is called kakigori). Tropical fruit flavors like mango, pineapple and passion fruit are common, and most stores, like Oahu’s Matsumoto Shave Ice offer add-ons like vanilla ice cream and chewy azuki beans that are boiled with sugar syrup and served as a hidden layer under the ice.
Mexico’s take on the icy dessert, raspados are a fundamental element of summer in parts of the American southwest. They are made from finely shaved ice (“raspado” comes from the Spanish word raspar, meaning “to scrape”) that’s packed down and covered in syrup. In Los Angeles, locals head to Zacatecas Raspados, a tiny storefront known for their homemade fruit and nut syrups in flavors like coconut, walnut and tamarind.
In New York, which has a large Puerto Rican community, it’s almost impossible to walk through a park on a hot summer day without seeing someone selling piraguas from a brightly colored pushcart. The word for the treat comes from a combination of two Spanish words: piramide (“pyramid”) and agua (“water”): the ice crystals in this shaved ice treat are mounded into a vertiginous cone shape before their fruit syrup drizzle — anything from strawberry and lemon to guava and passion fruit.
Unlike snow cones and shave ice, Italian ice comes premixed with fruit or syrup–most commonly lemon or cherry–and is whipped until smooth. The texture approaches ice cream’s richness, though without the addition of any dairy. Italian Ice, which typically comes scooped into wax-lined paper cups, is popular across New York (try Court Pastry Shop in Brooklyn), Chicago (we’re devoted to Gina’s) and Philadelphia, where it’s called water ice (President Obama recently sampled a lemon at John’s Water Ice in South Philly).
Del’s Frozen Lemonade
Del’s Frozen Lemonade has been a Rhode Island staple since 1948. That’s when Angelo DeLucia created a machine that could reproduce the homemade dessert his grandfather made back in Naples, Italy, something halfway between Italian ice and a slushy in consistency, and made using whole lemons–peels, pulp and all–giving the final product a unique tangy-sweet flavor. Del’s now has locations in more than a dozen states and sells a variety of flavors from watermelon to pomegranate, but for the classic treat, head to Rhode Island for a frozen lemonade, served without a straw in their signature yellow and green-striped cup.
While there’s something undeniably magical about slurping a snow cone drenched in hyper sweet, neon colored syrup, a new crop of companies has begun to explore ice’s sophisticated side. In New York City, the Kelvin Natural Slush Co. whirs up adult-friendly slush flavors like ginger and green tea, offering optional fresh fruit puree mix-ins from blood orange to white peach. And in Kansas City, Fresher than Fresh tops snow cones with syrups made from 100 percent fresh fruit and herbs, with flavors ranging from blackberry lavender to espresso and cane sugar.