A fish, some sweet bean paste and a topping of soft-serve ice cream: Sounds like a recipe for a disastrous dessert from the minds of Chopped. But if the seafood in question turns out to be a Japanese fish-shaped (but not fish-flavored) waffle called a taiyaki, suddenly the proposition looks a little sweeter.
Taiyaki and their Korean counterparts, bungeo-ppang, are a big hit in Asia, where the waffle irons (which turn out sea-bream shapes in Japan and carp in Korea) have been around for decades; more recently, they've been used to make ice cream-filled snacks at tea shops and street stalls. The fad, often called "fish ice cream," hit American shores two or three years ago, and now Aurora has become taiyaki territory with a shop called Snowl, which opened in April at 1930 South Havana Street.
Snowl — pronounced like a portmanteau of "snow" and "bowl" (not "snow" and "owl") — is cute in the extreme. Light fixtures shaped like fluffy clouds hang over a dining area decorated with retro lounge chairs, potted plants and neon signs with sayings scrawled in bright colors. "Enjoy the little things in life," one of them reads. And indeed, if you can't enjoy a crunchy waffle shaped like a goggle-eyed fish with its mouth full of Nutella and soft-serve, you might just be lacking in joy.
Typical of the various Vietnamese, Taiwanese and Korean tea shops popping up around town, Snowl has a menu of hot and cold beverages and frozen desserts that can seem a little overwhelming at first, but the taiyaki options are simple and well-explained in a sunny infographic on the menu board. The waffle fish are available filled with ice cream, like a standard ice cream cone (only one that sports a fish's body as its hand grip), or in a cup with the fish inverted into a larger serving of ice cream.
These waffles hold a surprise: They're hollow, so you also get a choice of red bean paste or Nutella as a filling before the ice cream goes in. Then choose a couple of free sprinkles and you're set. The soft-serve comes in taro root, matcha green tea, milk tea or black sesame flavors; more toppings — like mini-Oreos or gummy candy — can be added for fifty cents each. Each fish is baked to order, so they come out warm and fresh, but they may take a few minutes to reach your table. A table buzzer with a happy face will let you know when your taiyaki is ready.
Snowl also offers Taiwanese-style shaved ice in "snow bowls" of various flavors. The frozen dessert is scraped from a rotating disk so that it forms a continuous ribbon that mounds into a large bowl before it's topped with fruits, chocolate, sauces and other sweet things. These sundae-like bowls are easily enough for two, so don't be surprised at the price tag; only the simplest combo comes in at under $10. A pastry case filled with sliced cake rolls, pastel-hued macarons and other baked goods provides something for those not interested in a brain freeze, and coffee, tea and boba smoothies are also available.
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The only savory item currently offered is tteokboki, and it's definitely worth trying. The Korean stew of chewy rice cakes, fish cakes (made with actual fish), hard-boiled eggs, shrimp and hot dogs, all mixed together in a spicy red sauce, comes in a hot skillet in a serving big enough for two. (In keeping with the rest of Snowl's decor, even the skillet is a pastel shade of lavender.) Snowl's tteokboki also comes with a generous mound of melty cheese, and the hot dogs are of the miniature, Lit'l Smokies variety, not just the standard sliced frankfurters found in other recipes. Sound weird? Think of the dish as existing on the same culinary continuum as Hawaiian Spam musubi or Sonoran hot dogs: international mashups using processed American foods to delicious ends.
Snowl opens at 11 a.m. daily but isn't too busy before noon. As the place fills up, the clientele mirrors Aurora's diverse population: gray-haired Korean men digging into fruit-topped snow bowls, black teenagers with cool haircuts and traces of African accents, Japanese college students getting their ice cream fix. Summer hours go late, until 11 p.m. every night but Sunday (when the shop closes at 9:30), so an after-dinner treat is a fun and cooling idea after hitting one of the other restaurants in the same strip mall, whether it's Angry Chicken, Dae Gee or Katsu Ramen.
With summer's hottest days ahead of us, why not take the plunge and try fish ice cream?