Let It Sno, Let It Sno

Cool and Colorful 'Cones

photograph by John Anderson

Call them New Orleans snowballs, Mexican raspas, or the more literal "shaved ice" -- a snowcone by any other name is still as sweet... and just as cold. In the sub-tundra summertime, disposable cups hold artfully constructed domes of pulverized ice (crushed, shaved, or chipped depending on venue) which are then sloshed with sugar-sweet syrup in colors that simply defy description. (Deep blue bubble gum, spearmint that glows green, and cherry red à la Vick's cough drops, to name but a few.) Accompanied by a plastic picnic spoon, three paper napkins, and the union-required "spoonstraw," the snowcone provides a heatstroked populace with a drive-by alternative to ice cream -- just when we need it most.

Right about the time that Austin begins its long summer bake-off, snowball shacks magically appear on busy street corners and store parking lots to offer sweet relief from the heat. According to tradition, the shacks shut down for cooler seasons and reopen just in time to compete with ice cream shops during the dog days. Snowball stands are usually bare-bones affairs: a trailer or portable tool shed dropped in a high-traffic area and sporting a single painted plywood sign ("Cold Snow Cones Today..."). Inside, the setup couldn't be simpler -- one clerk, an electric ice shaver, and shelves filled with about 3,000 bottles of flavored syrup.

To order a cone, customers belly up to the window, choose size and flavor, and proceed to drool uncontrollably as the confection technician douses the snow with sweet sticky stuff. A veteran cone-tech can dispatch a victorious Little League team in under four minutes. Lines that form at the serving windows usually consist of soccer moms looking to silence daycamp carpools and drivers of older automobiles trying desperately to compensate for lack of AC. Kids invariably order by syrup color -- the brighter the better -- and spend the next few days with teeth stained the color of baboon butts. ("Hey, Mawkie... lookah my tonguh... ith blooooooo!")

The simplicity of the snowcone is responsible in part for its resounding success in hotter climes -- Louisiana, Mexico, South Texas, and for some mysterious reason, Baltimore. Unlike ice cream parlors who need freezer space to store and display individual flavors, snowcone stands keep low overhead while displaying dizzying selections in individual glass bottles. Selections usually run upwards of 20 different flavors, with an infinite number of taste combinations possible. (Strawberry/almond, anyone?)

Snowcones vary according to type of ice used and amount of syrup poured, and can run crunchy and dry to smooth and wet with everything in between. Though snowcones have the nouveau-advantage of being fat-free -- what's fatty about sugar syrup? -- most self-respecting shacks provide the option of drizzling the dome with sweet cream or condensed milk for about a quarter. The resulting cone is richer with less of a sugary edge, a comfortable midpoint between a light sorbet and a dairy-based butterfest.

Here are a few locations to get you started on your quest for ice, but the listing makes no claim about being complete. The best way to find a stand is to keep your eyes open as you drive about your day. For some reason, shacks tend to pop up -- like Brigadoon -- when you're waiting for a traffic light or passing their location at 35mph.

Due to an unseasonably rainy spring with numerous cold snaps (sweatshirt weather in May?) snowcone shacks have been blooming late this year. But as the temperature rises, you'll notice more plywood signs decorating the roadside. Just pull over and get in line -- your day will be all the cooler for it.

Casey's New Orleans Snowballs

Airport & 51st

This local offshoot of a Louisiana import serves a wide variety of creative flavors on balls of seriously crunchy ice. Moving from last year's location on Guadalupe (in the Ozone Bikes parking lot), Casey's now operates from a hybrid house/trailer at the corner of 51st & Airport. Their custom syrups run toward the exotic with offerings such as Orchid Vanilla Creme (a lavender-colored concoction that one taster described as "like an Easter jelly bean"), mango (compellingly sweet variation of its namesake fruit) and "Casey's Famous Fat-Free Chocolate."

Hawaiian Shaved Ice

Fiesta Parking Lot
Just north of corner of Barton Springs & South Lamar

The HSI people seem to keep their ice-cutter blades tended, which is the key to a smooth-textured snowball. Both locations sport a deep list of flavors visible from all sides of the open trailers. The tamarind syrup has a good balance of tart and sweet, and is one of the few snowcones that qualifies as savory. Bubble gum aficionados can choose from pink or blue-colored varieties, while the more adventurous can opt for the rich "wedding cake" flavor (drizzled with a bit of creme, of course).

JimJim's Water Ice

Deep Eddy Public Pool,
off of Lake Austin Boulevard

Deep Eddy swimmers already know about JimJim, who sells cold cones from a cart near the poolhouse. Though JimJim's ice doesn't qualify as the classic snowcone -- the flavored ice is premixed and stored in the cart -- the execution is close enough to make you look (and taste) twice. Different flavor batches (only a few to choose from each day) are spooned and shaped into the classic snoball dome -- the love child of snowcone and urban New York's Italian ice. Rather than using brighter syrups, JimJim uses natural juices to make his product. Our recent visit featured melt-in-your-mouth texture in black raspberry and perfectly sweet-sour lemon ice (with tiny bits of zest). The only down side is not being able to swim while eating....

Shelby's Sno Cones

1408 East Second, near Comal
2-8pm, daily

Located in low-traffic residential East Austin, Shelby's exemplifies the traditional neighborhood raspas shack. Shelby's little trailer sits behind a chainlink fence and blends in a bit too well -- be careful not to miss it. The only visible landmarks are cars abandoned the length of the curb, their drivers standing in line for an afternoon ice fix. The raspas are shaped from standard crushed ice instead of the more delicate shaved variety, so expect a healthy crunch for the bargain basement price of 50cents. The icy domes come well-doused in brightly colored syrup of your choice (blue coconut?) and melt perfectly on the ride home.

Sno Biz

Southeast Corner of 2222 & Hwy620

The location of this little red trailer couldn't get any better for a snowball shack. Situated on a vacant lot at a major recreational crossroad, Sno Biz serves the lakebound masses with huge portions of crushed ice in about 30 different flavors. The wide-mouthed small ($1.25) looks more like an ice-cream sundae than the traditional dixie cup, and the largest size ($3.00) looks to weigh about 12 pounds. Flavors of note: pink grapefruit, chocolate (made with Hershey's syrup), butterscotch, and the mystery taste "fruitasia."

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