The Korean shaved ice snack called patbingsu handily trumps even the most elaborate Fosselman's sundae when it comes to sheer, omg-inducing visual impact. For the uninitiated, patbingsu is like Pinkberry on psychotropic drugs: a delirious-looking desert that seems sprung from a foodie's weirdest, acid-fueled dreams. Next to one, a banana split is about as exciting as steamed kale. (Not to mention miniature… sizes of patbingsu range from large to gargantuan. It's not uncommon to stumble on a group of college students sharing a serving the size of a Thanksgiving turkey.)
Generally speaking, the foundation is the same: Heaps of coarsely shaved ice topped with sweetened red azuki beans (the pat in patbingsu). The already mountainous dish is then piled even higher with toppings, which may include sliced fresh (hopefully) fruit, chewy boba, marshmallow-sized pieces of mochi, a hefty swirl of frozen yogurt or a scoop of ice cream, whipped cream, even breakfast cereal (at Koreatown's Café Home and Mr. Coffee, Fruity Pebbles make an admittedly inelegant but wonderfully trippy touch). The whole business is drizzled with some combination of condensed milk, green tea, chocolate sauce, and strawberry syrup, then dusted with slightly yeasty tasting bean powder.
Our Top 5 Patbingsu Favorites:
5. Cafe Home: The patbingsu at Café Home has a childish glee about it, from its unapologetically sweet strawberry ice cream (also: boba, mochi, generous splashes of condensed milk, diced strawberries, bananas, and kiwi) to the Crayola-bright Fruity Pebbles speckling its whipped cream top. If your inner child requires further coddling, a bookcase against the wall stocks board games like Life, Connect 4, Pictionary, and Jenga, for customer use.
4. Mochilato: Fullerton is best known for churning out punk acts like The Offspring and Gwen Stefani, but it's also home to a pretty hardcore patbingsu. Order your shaved ice “Mochilato's Way” at this combination ice cream parlor and coffee shop, and beneath the upper crust of mochi (the freshest we've tasted), red bean topping, diced kiwi, mango, and sliced bananas, your spoon will unearth a stratum of sweet, vanilla gelato. Crack through it to find a subterranean river of milky melted ice intermingling with whatever else your spoon has knocked below–a kind of gross-looking guilty pleasure.
3. Milk + Honey: Housed in an earthy, outdoorsy 'retail community' in Costa Mesa called The Camp, this tiny organic tea and coffee shop offers a refreshingly healthful interpretation of patbingsu. The house special (topped with fresh kiwi, canned pineapple, azuki beans, mochi, and shaved coconut) comes drenched in green tea that's subtly flavored with, unsurprisingly, milk and honey.
2. Café Java Bru: Buena Park isn't what you'd call close, but Café Java Bru's desserts are well worth the detour if you're in the area… say, pre-Disneyland or post-Renu Nakorn in Norwalk. The green tea patbingsu (an enormous sphere of green tea ice cream over shaved ice, buried in frosted flakes, boba, fruit cocktail, and freshly cut watermelon, strawberries, and bananas) is especially delicious.
1. Hwa Sun Ji Tea & Coffee: The serene ambiance of this tiny tea salon carries over to its patbingsu, which tastes clean and pure, almost austere. Beneath a creamy scoop of green tea ice cream, diced watermelon and honeydew melon blanket white, snow-soft shaved ice. The extensive list of curative teas (like “Sa-rang Tang Lover's Tea, recommended for couples, potential couples, or those looking”) is a lot of fun, too.