Monona, WI: Shaved Ice a Fruity, Refreshing, Cheap Way to Chill Out

STEPHANIE BEDFORD — Capital Times Shaved ice, popularized in Hawaii, is a delicious and inexpensive summer treat. Read more:
By STEPHANIE BEDFORD | Special to The Capital Times
STEPHANIE BEDFORD — Capital Times Shaved ice, popularized in Hawaii, is a delicious and inexpensive summer treat.

MONONA – Summer has, technically, arrived in Madison. The solstice has come and gone, fireflies dance in the parks at twilight, and children on vacation are being flogged through daily swim lessons despite the fact that Mother Nature has at times seemed to resist the memo about the change in seasons.

Nonetheless, we Madisonians anticipate the dog days to arrive any day now, and when they do, we’ve got a wide variety of cooling-off dessert options available. One of the cheapest and most effective can be obtained at Mad City Shaved Ice, a food truck purveying a variety of frozen treats for as little as $1.

Shaved ice, while similar to a snow cone in many respects, is not the same thing. The primary difference is the ice itself. If you haven’t spent much time cogitating on the snow cone since you were 5, you might not know that the ice in the classic cone is crushed and has, if memory serves, the texture of very fine gravel.

Shaving rather than crushing the ice is said to endow the resulting dessert with a lighter texture and, more importantly, to keep any added flavoring from immediately filtering down to the bottom of the vessel in which it’s contained. Most widely available in Hawaii, shaved ice is a more sophisticated, adult take on the snow cone, available in a variety of flavors that derive from actual fruits rather than the traditional tinted high-fructose corn syrup.

Mad City Shaved Ice brings this Pacific island treat to a parking lot on Monona Drive. From his truck, proprietor Ken Pulliam sells ices in three sizes, priced at $1, $2 and $3 in order of increasing volume. The small is the size of a single-scoop ice cream dish, but its contents tower hemispherically over the rim. Medium is a 16-ounce cup filled level, and the large size is that same cup overfilled to create a towering, frosty Matterhorn. Fruit smoothies in a variety of tropical flavors are also available for $3 and are, like the standard-issue shaved ice, dairy free.

Pulliam advertises 35 flavors in his summer rotation. On my visit, 15 were available, most of them fruit-based. The lemon-lime was psychedelic acid-green in color but packed a surprising, real-citrus tartness that was on the sour side for a kid’s palate but appealing if you don’t like your lemonade too sugary. I was unable to resist trying “Tiger Blood,” a flavor that’s a combination of strawberry and coconut, which packed a tropical sweetness and tinted all of our lips vampire red. The favorite among all three kids in my entourage was the root beer, which tasted not like a flat imitation of soda but more like the real beverage in crystalline form.

Pulliam anticipates offering the option of a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the bottom of the cup sometime later this summer (think post-Fourth of July), which is another Hawaiian-style touch. On a recent trip to the Southwest, I had a raspado (the Mexican variation of this dessert) and can vouch for the surprising rightness of fruity ice and vanilla ice cream in the same container. I’m already anticipating making a special trip to Mad City Shaved Ice for a root beer with ice cream in the bottom – more of a root beer shipwreck than a float.

You can find the shaved ice truck at the intersection of Monona Drive and Dean Avenue, in the parking lot of Midwest Fine Jewelry. It’s easy to spot from the road. In addition to his regular perch, look for Ken Pulliam and his truck all over the Madison area this summer, reinventing the snow cone for kids and grown-ups alike.