Ground Control to Major Tongue
Wing Ice Cream has made the grade
Text by Travis Hancock || Images by Maxfield Terrell Smith
It’s late. I’ve had more than a few drinks, and now, stumbling down Pauahi Street, my vision narrows into a cone. The air is warm. Rotten fruit left behind by daytime vendors and sticky booze spilled nearby smell surprisingly sweet. I scoop my feet up over cardboard houses and mysterious syrupy fluids trickling off the curb.
I thought I was going home, but I begin to sense I’ve been derailed. As I approach Maunakea Street, my ears are ambushed by the vibrato of an Italian singer flowing down from a hidden speaker. A lone “Open” sign grabs me by the corner of my eye, and then it’s done: My night has been hijacked by a man in a bright white apron and a red bowtie waiting inside the tiny shop on my left decorated with derelict art and crackseed jars.
This man is Miller Wing Royer, Chinatown native and owner of Wing Ice Cream. I met him long before he opened this scrappy yet enchanting ice cream lab wedged between lei makers and herbal medicine peddlers. He is also known as Brainplane, the one-man band that takes audiences to the lands of the “jelly-people” and “love-zombies” with hypnotic strums of a double-neck guitar. He has been a chef at several Chinatown eateries. He has projected films for countless Honolulu moviegoers at the dollar theater and Doris Duke Theatre. But on the night of this debauch, he is my ice-cream man extraordinaire. As I peruse his many flavors, I find stray questions swirling together until one rises up as randomly as my visit to his shop, as random as his strange and inexplicable path.
“Do you know kung fu?” I ask.
He leans over the counter, peers at me through enormous glasses, and says, “I know kung fu.”
What are you working on right now?
I was just about to make some of my fresh waffle cones.
How do you make those?
I make them from scratch with flour, egg whites, sugar, butter.
Is that starfruit in the pot over there?
Yeah, that’s going to be a sorbet that I am making—starfruit with lemon balm. This is lemon balm. It’s from Manoa. And the starfruit, a customer brought it in from their tree.
So you make a lot of things from scratch?
Yeah. A lot of stuff you can buy nowadays has fillers and preservatives and food coloring and stuff, so I like to know what I put in everything.
Why did you open an ice cream shop in Chinatown?
Well, I grew up in Chinatown, and there’s never been an ice cream shop here, so I decided to fill that niche and help to make Chinatown a more happy place, because there’s nothing happy down here.
What kinds of flavors seem to make people the happiest?
A lot of things that hit people in their ... nose-talgia. That’ll just bring them back. They’ll be like, “Oh, my grandma used to make homemade ice cream just like this.” That only happens with certain flavors.
Which flavors hit those nostalgic notes most often?
A lot of people get that with the ube, sweet potato, or the coconut ice cream, or even just the regular vanilla.
What kind of people are most likely to come in?
Everybody. It’s such a broad range. Like, especially with the little kids though. The little kids draw the parents in, and then the parents will start having flashbacks.
Do you think Wing draws such a broad audience because of its location, or maybe because its atmosphere isn’t phony, or something else?
I think it’s just the fact of ice cream that draws everybody in. It’s like a weakness. It’s definitely not the area because this is kind of a rough area.
So ice cream overcomes the odds on Pauahi Street?
What exotic flavors do you have right now?
Okay, let’s look at the board. Something kind of weird that not a lot of people get is the avocado ice cream. It’s made from avocado another customer brought from their tree on Nuuanu. As for vegan ice creams, right now I’ve got strawberry-basil-beet, and that’s pretty good and exotic. The licorice flavor is a weirder one. And right now I have a lot of the loaded-up flavors with popular combinations.
I remember a garlic flavor before, but you wouldn’t give samples of that one. Why?
Well, certain flavors require me to put in a lot of time and effort into making them. And that was one of those things where everybody wanted to taste it. And I don’t want to just give out samples of it to everyone so that they can just taste it, because it ends up being that I give out more samples than I sell.
And you kind of make people fully commit that way.
Right, and it sort of forces people to step out of their comfort zones and try something different. And people who already do that sort of thing know it’s going to be good.
What’s an example of the lengths you have gone to in order to create a flavor? You forage sometimes, right?
Yeah, I have definitely harvested wild guava, strawberry guava, and lilikoi by going on hikes.
How do you come up with names like the green sorbet called The Incredible Hulk?
I had one called the Dirty Diaper that was vanilla ice cream with brownie chunks and fudge and caramel swirl. That one sold really quick because people just like the name of it. A lot of my marketing is creative wording. I get my names from personal likes and concepts.
There’s art on the walls, and maybe the ice cream is an art form too.
The connection between it all is just creativity. Creation. Even though they are from different realms, all of it comes from inspiration.
Why should people come to Wing?
People should come to Wing to get ice cream.
Okay, why should they come here instead of another ice cream shop in Honolulu?
The variety of flavors; there’s always going to be something different here. And for the experience of the shop itself.
Does any of your mixed background come into what you do?
Yeah, even with the nostalgia, I’ll make stuff from my childhood that I want to revisit and turn into an ice cream flavor.
Right now we have li hing mango, which is like the signature shop flavor. I used to eat that all the time as a kid, so that’s one of the first things I made. I even make a li hing ice cake, which is something I used to get every day for 50 cents from the corner store. That sort of died out and you couldn’t find it anywhere, so I brought it back. Free for the skateboarding team. To be on the team you have to do a unique trick inside the shop.
What kind of interesting people do you get coming in here?
Speaking of the ice cake, a lot of the homeless or poor people around here that somehow get some money come for the ice cake or shave ice, which is $2. They look kind of gnarly, but they are fairly harmless.
Have you purposely used the shop for anything else?
I did have a music show a couple times for First Fridays. I was thinking about doing that again. Also, I’m probably gonna have my grand opening two years after opening, for Chinese New Year in February, so I’ll probably be giving out free stuff.
Do you put on art shows?
One homeless guy did. He isn’t exactly a Chinatown regular, but he is definitely crazy.
OK, I’ll have two scoops of that guy’s favorite flavor.