In 2016, kakigori—Japan's prized shaved ice—made its entrance into Portland in the most unlikely place: downtown's scrappy, eco-minded Courier Coffee, the very definition of DIY culture. Bike-riding owner/roaster Joel Domreis was sawing up a slab of pure ice from a secret source, smack in the middle of the counter, next to his shot-pulling baristas and latte drinkers, while the Nerve Agents blasted from the turntable. In a makeshift corner, his wife Sakiko Setaka stirred a boiling pot of her homemade tofu mochi on an ad-hoc portable burner, baby slung on arm.
On her work station: a cache of homemade flavor agents and multiple kinds of Japanese sugars. She even made her own condensed milk.
Thirty minutes later, a big square block of ice was loaded inside of a Japanese Swan shaved ice machine, and long icy feathers fell off of a spinning blade. As the ice tufts formed, the couple, taking turns, would catch and shape them into a giant round, stopping occasionally to add Setaka’s syrups, mochi, and fresh organic berries from Joel’s morning run to the PSU Farmers Market. Shapes were a little lopsided, but the passion and spark of excellence were there. That included a playful coffee kakigori, rippling with a dark house roast and rum raisins. One taste and I was forever hooked.
Hours were random, but Setaka found a quick following. On weekends, Japanese customers spilled out to the sidewalk. She gave it a name, Soen, and it morphed into an “imaginary pop-up cafe and store” online and around town. Over the past few years, word of mouth grew along with Setaka's kakigori art.
Now, we no longer have to dog Soen’s IG account for sightings. As of May 14, Soen has a permanent space inside of the remodeled Courier at 935 SW Oak St. Half of the shop is now Setaka's workspace and playground, with its own counter.
Hours to start: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday. The plan is to expand days with demand. A few indoor tables and counter seats are coming soon; otherwise, limited sidewalk seats and tables are available. Expect at least six options to start. Prices are $10-$13.50, and portions are big enough for a small family.
Followers swear by Soen’s matcha-rich uji kintoki, a traditional flavor laden with little adzuki beans, sweet and nutty. Others are drawn to inventive seasonal flavors, like summertime strawberry and mango kakigori with homemade coconut condensed milk or an autumnal combo of apple-Asian pear crisp etched in miso caramel.
Setaka goes to great lengths to source uncommon ingredients, introducing customers to often unfamiliar tastes in a fluffy ice cloud. The sannen bancha kakigori celebrates the flavor of a rare green tea by the same name, made from wood-roasted whole tea trees grown for three years—and rarely seen stateside. According to Setaka, who found a source at a tea farm in Nara, Japan: “Leaves are usually the main ingredient of tea. This one uses whole branches, stems, and leaves. It is more earthy and has a mellower, more natural sweetness than regular bancha.”
Flavors typically sport drizzles of house condensed milk, rich with heavy cream. A new flavor, kuromitzu kinako, flashes two house syrups, one made with Okinawa brown sugar and warm baking spice; the other a citrus-bright yuzu-cardamon syrup. Sprinkled all around is roasted soybean powder—crunchy little specks that reminded me of malted graham cracker crumbs. The buried balls of mochi dance between your molars like bouncy taffy. The whole thing has the vibe of a deep iced tea, a spice cake, and a lemon drop.
What ultimately distinguishes Soen's kakigori is its fluffy texture. It's a matter of understanding when the ice is at the right temperature to whirl, which is why patience is a virtue here. There's no rushing the ice.
Ice, in fact, is Soen's secret weapon, pure as snow, made from well water, and tended by a Portland ice sculptor. The product is not available commercially. Japanese ice, as Setaka notes, was originally frozen in ponds and cooled by nature, not home freezers. Using the traditional method is bottom-line for the couple (primal, jewel-like chunks of pure ice, hand-hammered by Domreis, also go into the house coffee). They are obsessed with it, how and where to get it.
Setaka explains it this way: In the Japanese belief of 8 million gods, it takes the power of the water, the mountains, and the gods of the land to make a single piece of ice. This chain of connections is what makes shaved ice possible. This is what drives her to kakigori, which dates back to the year 1001 as history's first shaved ice, according to some historians, and has had a revival in Japan in recent years. Kakigori, as she puts it, “respects and cherishes life's delicacy and fragility. Nothing stays the same forever.”
Courier Coffee has long been a personal favorite. Here, quirky perfectionism is an art form, as is the way the staff connects with customers. It's one of the truest spots in Portland, genuine to the core. In a 2012 piece titled Cult of the Cannele, I marveled at how Domreis, with a Swiss army knife and a tiny oven hidden beneath the counter, nailed one of France's most finicky pastries. The coffee beans are exceptional. And, last fall, on the Hulu food show Eater's Guide to the World, I revealed my secret to life: a daily Courier chocolate chip cookie.
Add Soen to that list.