It's in a dessert category unto itself.
The Taiwanese frozen dessert, xue hua bing, resembles paper-thin ribbons (depending on the flavor and color, it's pretty hard to tell what one is looking at) that are layered over and over and can be topped with anything from fruit to Oreos to popping boba to condensed milk. It's created by literally shaving large blocks of ice that have been infused with a blend of ingredients to create flavors like mango, taro, coconut, vanilla, chocolate, strawberry or avocado.
"It kind of melts in your mouth and then is creamy. It's like a Jedi mind trick," said Jennypher Doan, who opened Sno-Zen Shaved Snow & Desserts with her husband, Teague Ho, in Mountain View last year. The sensation she's describing has been likened to that of eating cotton candy.
"There's a surprise element," Ho echoed. "It's like, what is this thing? How can ice have flavor?"
Doan and Ho, both Bay Area natives, first tried shaved snow at a Taiwanese cafe in Los Angeles.
"We said, 'OK, we have to try this because we always love to try new things, Doan said. "We went on a couple different freeways, found our way over there and tried it and we were completely blown away."
On visits back to the Bay Area, they noticed that shaved snow places were scarce. Many restaurants have the frozen dessert on their menu, but it's not their singular focus, including Honeycreek, a Taiwanese restaurant at 124 Castro St. in downtown Mountain View.
Eventually, the Vietnamese couple snagged a space at 2101 Showers Drive, on the corner of a townhouse development that's down the street from the San Antonio Caltrain station. The space was previously occupied by Crossing's Cafe.
"Originally, we were looking for something cost effective to introduce a product and test the market to see how it goes," Ho said of the out-of-the-way location, a far cry from restaurant-dense Castro Street. "We wanted to spend the minimum money to try out this product and it just blew up."
Doan and Ho, first-time restaurateurs (he was an architect for 20 years and she, a stay-at-home-mom) said they've had no trouble running a business in an area with little foot traffic. At last count, Sno-Zen's Yelp page had close to 200 glowing reviews — almost exclusively four- and five-star — a rarity for the customer-driven rating site.
Doan and Ho said they've perfected the formula for making shaved snow, both in terms of flavor and science.
"Basically every recipe starts out with a base, just like an ice cream base," Doan said. "Our base does not include eggs and not as much sugar as ice cream does, so that actually allows us to freeze the block to the right temperatures because if it had all those things, I believe that the block wouldn't freeze properly and it wouldn't allow us to shave it the way that we do."
The next step: adding all-natural ingredients. For strawberry, two pounds of the berries go into each block, Doan said. The round blocks are mounted onto a machine that spins them in fast circles, shaving thin layers off as it goes.
Customers can either craft their own snowy treat or choose pre-crafted ones. There are three sizes: small ($3.50), medium ($4.50) and large ($5.50). Those taking the custom route can choose from six base flavors (mango, taro, coconut, vanilla, chocolate or strawberry) or 10 rotating specials (on a recent day, they were serving matcha green tea, jasmine milk tea, Vietnamese coffee, Thai tea, peanut butter and sweet milk).
All toppings are 50 cents each. There are classics like fruit, nuts, brownie bits, Oreo, chocolate chips and marshmallows, but also traditional Asian toppings like red beans, mochi, bursting boba and coconut jelly. For 25 cents, add a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, caramel or raspberry sauce.
Some of Doan and Ho's pre-set combinations include the "All American" (vanilla snow topped with strawberries, blueberries, chocolate or raspberry drizzle), "Rocky Road" (chocolate snow with almonds, marshmallows and chocolate drizzle), "Snow White" (sweet milk snow with red bean, mochi, black sesame sauce and condensed milk) and more.
"The feedback we've gotten from our customers is that our version of shaved snow is very authentic," Ho said. "Some of our customers have said we're the closest thing to home."
Sno-Zen also serves Hawaiian-style shaved ice, sandwiches, salads, coffee and smoothies, but shaved snow is the main attraction. Despite the frozen sweet's growing popularity in the Bay Area, there's still only a handful of places to find it.