Portland is suddenly a hotbed of ice cream, soft serve, and crazy frozen treats. (Xurro ice cream sandwiches anyone? Everyone?) But the best chill in town is hiding in plain sight every Saturday afternoon at downtown’s Courier Coffee Roasters: a mound of malleable, cotton candy-esque frozen tufts hand-formed into a cult treat rarely seen in these parts. We’re talking true Japanese shaved ice, which tastes like an exotic snow cone layered with syrups and condensed milk. Each week brings three flavors, each wild and wonderful in its own way. You might find shockingly intense matcha tea (it looks like a giant loofah) or fresh cantaloupe swirled with enough basil to perfume all the pestos in Italy. I’m personally a sucker for coffee version, rippling with the house roast and Kahlua raisins. Prices are $8–9, and portions are big enough for a small family.
Courier’s shaved ice experience started in summer 2016, making my personal list of the best dishes of the year, before going on winter hiatus. Now it’s back, as long as the weather demands something that literally melts in your mouth.
To find it, head to the shop at 923 SW Oak around noon on a Saturday. The first time I arrived, owner Joel Domreis was working over a giant slab of ice with a Japanese saw, smack in the middle of the counter, next to his shot-pulling baristas, while the Nerve Agents blasted from the turntable. (That, in a nutshell, is everything you need to know about Courier.) In the corner, his wife Sakiko Setaka—the wizard behind the house formula—works over the day’s ingredients. This being Courier, where quirky perfectionism is an art form, she even blends different kinds of sugars for each syrup, from delicate Japanese wasanbon to molasses-y Okinawa black sugar. Fruit, gleaned from farm-star Groundwork Organics, is part pureed, part marinated to maintain texture. She even makes her own condensed milk.
To make the shaved ice, Domreis loads a big, square block on the Swan ice machine. As he hand-cranks, giant ice feathers fall off the blade. As the ice tufts form, he catches and shapes them into a round, stopping occasionally to add syrups, sweet condensed milk, and toppings, perhaps blackberries or fresh mochi. The ice is served as long as supplies last, usually until late Saturday afternoon. But be warned: Japanese customers are big fans, and often fill up the place early.
Shaved ice is having a moment in Japan, says Setaka, and she wants to bring that excitement here. “People line up for hours and hours and eat three to five cups at one time,” she says. “Some girls are traveling across Japan to try new and hidden shaved ice spots.” Maybe they should come to Portland?