Yelo, Roppongi’s kakigori (shaved ice) mecca, summoned the faithful with free samples on April 1 like some kind of cool April Fool’s joke for the not-quite-warm weather. The line stretching to the Hard Rock Café a block away was a reminder of things to come. Now the weather has turned much warmer, and the wait is daunting.
The line snakes out the somewhat hidden doorway along the outside of the restaurant, winding down a street housing an artisanal-beer darts bar and a club featuring a Beatles cover band. In the line, office ladies sporting brand-name handbags shift from foot to foot, young men try to amuse their dates, various Lolita cosplay girls laugh and text, a band of kids from an outer prefecture try to fit in, while two older gentlemen in hiking clothes seem stranded and two GIs from the army base in Yokuska consider leaving. It’s Roppongi, after all, where foreigners roam and Japanese people flock.
The café opens at 11 in the morning and in warmer weather the wait can feel infinite as the line instantly swells. Is it worth it? Heck, yes! Stop by for a brain-freezing, tequila-infused, snowy fairy tale late into the night. Yelo is open until the wee hours, when the lines are shorter.
Kakigori is shaved ice with syrup or toppings, Japanese-style. Without the myriad toppings it would seem to float away. It’s almost like eating a cloud or quite possibly what dessert tastes like when you dream of it. That’s where the toppings come in. The fluffy consistency of the ice comes from natural local spring water frozen into old-fashioned blocks of ice. No tap water here, just pure mountain-sourced water kept at the optimal temperature for perfect shaving. Yelo proudly displays the ice in its own case in the middle of the café.
A kakigori maker slings a small block of ice into the shredding machine, holds a small plate near the bottom chute and begins his magic. First, a layer of gossamer ice, a small mound from which to build an empire. Then come the goodies, depending on the final taste ordered. The base in place, more silken threads of ice are layered on. More flavoring. More ice. More flavoring. The kakigori maker stands back to look at the creation in his hand. Yes!
At Yelo the house-made flavorings can seem like something out of the latest manga-inspired craze, yet they are mixed with tradition. Beyond that, no matter what is ordered, customers can customize their treats to suit their wildest fantasies. Rare Cream Cheese Cake has a “special milk sauce,” plus another cheese sauce, with crushed Oreo cookies hidden inside and proudly dancing on top. Green Tea kakigori, made from Kyoto tea, looks iridescent and simultaneously indecently refreshing. Strawberry Milk tastes like eating one’s memories of strawberries and cream. Adzuki Bean arrives adorned with adzuki bean paste woven inside and lace-like over the top, hoping for a mascarpone chaser splashed on before eating.
Yelo offers flamboyant combinations and taste sensations, yet nothing tastes unusually sweet. They proudly state on their menu that they are dedicated to exploring sweet taste and present a perfect harmony of syrup, milk and ice. Creations include Organic Carrot Mascarpone, Apple Pie, Crème Brûlée, Caramel, Mango Lassi, Avocado Mascarpone and Tiramisu. There are seasonal favorites and special flavors that pop up from time to time. Come evening Yelo breaks out the “Night Kakigori” with specialty guilty pleasures spiked with alcohol: Godiva Chocolate, Kahlua, Grasshopper and other indulgences.
If the combinations and tastes are not enough, Yelo offers add-ons: granola, Oreo cookies, tapioca, almonds, adzuki jelly and the house favorite, hot corn. People often leave raving about the hot nuggets over the cold ice. Not enough? Pick an additional sauce: milk, yogurt, mascarpone, cream cheese.
Each dish of kakigori is hand-built and served with great care. Swipe off the top layer and find the next layer of goodies in a web of ice that somehow doesn’t melt, except in one’s mouth. The treat is surprisingly low in fat, usually gluten-free and quite healthy.
There is a small counter where one can sit and watch the kakigori maker spin his magic. An additional six tables along a window allow a series of treats to be shared between two or more people. The café serves coffee, soft drinks and many kinds of alcoholic beverages, including a specially made ale. Fries and samosas are on offer as well.
In summer, bring sunscreen to slather on while waiting in the sun. Then cool off over mounds of kakigori.
Editor’s note: It’s Beat the Heat Week at Culinary Backstreets, and in this week’s stories, we’re sharing some of our favorite spots to visit when the summer temperatures soar.