Snow has hit Houston for the summer.
Snow ice, that is. It's a Taiwanese dessert that's been gaining popularity here in the Bayou City for the past few years, but in spite of its increasing adoration, many Houstonians still don't know much about it. The ice cream--for even though it looks like some sort of coral or ocean plant life, it is ice cream--was supposedly invented at the Shilin Night Market in Taiwan, but Singapore, the Philippines and Hawaii all have similar shaved ice desserts.
Here in Houston, one of the most popular spots is Snow Block Shavery, partially because it's one of the only places you can get snow ice, also called ribbon ice, outside of Chinatown. My favorite spot is a little shop in Dun Huang Plaza off of Bellaire, where Christina Chi has been serving up delectable treats for three years: Nu Cafe.
"I use all natural ingredients," Chi explains while scooping mochi and mango onto a plate of snow ice for me. "There are other places in town that use flavored powder in their ice cream, but I use all real, natural ingredients. There is real green tea in the green tea and real mango in the mango."
All of the varieties of ice cream at Nu Cafe contain dairy except the fruit-based ones, which sets them apart from Hawaiian-style shaved ice--usually just ice chips with syrup poured on top. Chi calls her product "nu ice" rather than snow ice or ribbon ice, and she describes it as light and fluffy ice cream. It's neither shaved ice nor a snow-cone-type dessert nor, really, ice cream, but something akin to all of these things.
Snow ice is made by mixing up ice cream, essentially, then freezing it into very hard cylindrical blocks. These blocks are then loaded into a special machine that spins the cylinder and shaves off the bottom layer of ice cream in tissue paper thin ribbons. A server holds a plate under the machine catching and arranging the folds of ice cream as they fall. Next, the dish is topped with any number of fresh fruits, mochi mango boba, condensed milk or fruit syrups.
The result is a truly beautiful plate of food. The show ice ends up taking on an organic shape, almost like a head of lettuce, and if you didn't know you were being served ice cream, you might be confused by its appearance. One bite, though, and you can taste all the natural ingredients that go into every block of snow ice.
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Chi says its this commitment to only the best that has kept Nu Cafe popular even in the wake of competitors opening around town. Nu Cafe has been so successful that Chi was recently able to open a second location, run by her daughter and son-in-law, at Westheimer and Fountainview. It's all the same great flavors and toppings, but a little closer to home for us inner-Loopers.
There are 13 regular flavors (vanilla milk, green tea, coffee, taro, peanut butter, mango, durian, sea salt caramel, chocolate, almond, strawberry, coconut and lychee) that are always on the menu, and Chi adds new flavors seasonally. In the fall, she'll be introducing rum raisin and pumpkin spice. You can try the durian flavor (a notoriously stinky Asian fruit) if you want, but Chi refuses to sell it to people who have never had durian before, because she's afraid they won't like it and won't come back.
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Try anything else on the menu, though, and you're bound to be back again soon to taste another flavor or another combination of syrups and toppings. And if you make it into Nu Cafe more than once, Chi is bound to remember you and greet you like an old friend.
"Come back and see me!" she shouts on my way out the door after a big plate of ribbon ice in the middle of a sweltering day. And I always do.
See how snow ice is shaved off the big frozen block in this video.