The other day when the air conditioning in my car went all wonky, I pulled off the road, peeled my shirt away from the car seat and, dripping sweat, walked into Whole Foods Market in search of something that would de-summer my soul. I ended up with a cranberry/pomegranate granita — in essence, a 7-Eleven Slurpee for the antioxidant set.
I remember from my days of hanging around the neighborhood 7-Eleven that you attack a Slurpee with a “spoon straw” or, lacking that fancy utensil, a spoon and a straw.
Aaaahh!! With the straw you get the sweeter, more syrupy amalgam from the bottom of the cup, while with the spoon you scoop up the crunchy, icy, brain-freezing refreshment from the pale top. Did I say “Aaaahh!!”?
Slushie. Slurpee. Icee. Granita. Snow cone. Sno-ball. This is what you want to slake your essence with on one of these asphalt-melting summer days. A fractious alliance of syrup and ice, of sweet and flavorless, of sticky and cleansing that somehow ebbs away the drone of heat. Here’s where I like to go:
This Asian shaved ice chain now has four locations (including ones in Norcross, Decatur and Athens) but the Duluth flagship with its ample seating (and great people-watching) is the one to visit.
Place your order, and staffers set a cylindrical block of milky ice (containing actual milk) in a vise, turn on the rotating blade and shave a heap of fine, crystalline snow into a cup. I like the simplicity of the plain ice, but you might try the sweeter mango, strawberry or chocolate versions.
A bewildering assortment of toppings and syrups awaits. Choose from passion fruit, kiwi, coffee and strawberry syrups (to name a few) and then outfit the top with berries, mango, gummy worms, Oreo cookies, nubbins of rice taffy, canned lychees and squares of egg custard. The whole gets drizzled with a stream of condensed milk. My kid likes to go nuts here; I usually opt for a fuddy-duddy special of ice, fresh mango and a big shot of condensed milk. Either way, the soft texture and interesting gradations of sweetness make these ice coupes appealing. They look huge, but the fineness of the grind adds a lot of volume. Think of this as the cotton candy of snow cones.
This sleek Chinese restaurant set in a round building on Buford Highway — a prime example of Googie Architecture — serves a variety of Taiwanese-style shaved ice coupes. You can go and enjoy a nice Chinese meal and save the ice for dessert. Then again, you can just stop by in the afternoon for a frozen pick-me-up. One $4.95 shaved ice dessert can easily feed two.
These mountains of ice stand a foot high and look like they could double as one of the baking-soda volcanoes you turned in for a junior high school science project. There’s nothing not to like about the fruit desserts — the ice is tiled with sliced strawberry, kiwi or mango (or a combination of the three) and moistened with condensed milk. Your spoon will dart between the icy peaks and milk-soaked slush in the serving dish.
If you want to try something more challenging, try the amusingly named “Cafe 101 Breeze” that sets huge deposits of four kinds of beans on your ice mountain. It looks like a strip mining site, but is surprisingly delicious, particularly the boiled peanuts and sweetened black beans.
The Malaysian answer to the shaved ice coupe is much smaller but much more complex. I recommend stopping by Penang one afternoon for a serving of nasi lemak ($7.50) and saving room for dessert. This plate lunch consists of coconut-flavored rice surrounded with all kinds of goodies — boneless chicken curry, pickled vegetables, raw cucumbers, spicy chili anchovies and an amazing fried egg that is as crisp as a dumpling skin on the surface and gushy within.
Now you can have your Ice Kacang ($2.95). This pinkish mound of crunchy ice crystals in rose syrup seems sweet and basic at first bite. But hidden in the bottom of the serving dish are plump red beans, glutinous palm seeds (like natural Gummi Bears) and squares of multicolored jelly. The textures are interesting and flavors easy to like, if a little sweet once the ice goes all melty. Still, this is one of those strange dishes you might develop a serious jones for.
La Estrella de Michoacan (4140 Jonesboro Road, Forest Park, 404-361-0131)
The King of Pops and others are wowing the intown crowd with their sophisticated take on the Mexican paleta, or ice pop. I love them all, but for pure refreshment, nothing beats the traditional Mexican pops sold at this Forest Park storefront. Rough chunks of cantaloupe, pineapple, mango or watermelon remind you that you’re eating fresh, sweetened fruit as you bite the pop from its stick, and you get that beguiling mix of hard, icy bits and sweet, gushy bits. Look for two dozen or more flavors on any day. There are also paletas de crema (ice cream pops) and a number of chile fruit pops that are interesting but have been very salty. Still, that cucumber/chile/salt pop does replenish your electrolyte balance as well as any bottle of Gatorade.
Be advised: This shop takes no credit cards. No one working here seems to speak English. No worries: All you have to do is point, pay and slurp.