Unless you frequent the road less traveled in Honolulu’s Chinatown, chances are you’ve never been to Wing Ice Cream. The little flavor lab hides in plain sight between a lei shop and herbal medicine supplier near the corner of Pauahi and Maunakea streets. When people walk in, the most common facial expression is one that seems to say, “So it’s true! There is an ice cream shop here.” More surprise follows as they turn to the blackboard menu listing the wildly inventive flavor combinations concocted by owner and operator Miller Wing Royer. Unexpected ingredients leap off the board: lemongrass, garlic, rose, pandan, chrysanthemum, matcha. You’ll want to sample these, but fair warning, he won’t always let you: He prefers guests to commit full heartedly to his labor-intensive creations.
Royer’s flavor combinations heighten the intrigue. For example, “Pretz-ident” seems a simple enough name for a combo featuring pretzels. But no: It used to be called “Pretz-ident Bush,” in remembrance of the 2002 incident when President Bush nearly choked to death on a pretzel in front of his do-nothing dogs. Having forgotten this story, Wing’s patrons mistakenly took Royer for a bleeding-heart conservative, so he eventually dropped the “Bush.” This creative humor pervades Wing’s menu and complements its other main feature: a warm sense of local nostalgia. When flavors hit the mark, Royer sometimes hears customers say, “Oh, my grandma used to make homemade ice cream just like this.” He awakens that nostalgia with local favorites like ube, coconut, or even his plain vanilla.
For Royer, opening shop in Chinatown wasn’t a boutique business venture but a familial return. Unlike many transplants and newcomers to the Chinatown District, Royer both grew up in the area and is actually Chinese. His mother helped him get the space and his look-alike brother worked the shop in its early days (Wing reached its two-year anniversary in February). In one of his freezers, he keeps a stock of li hing ice cakes, the kind he remembers buying from a Chinatown corner store every day for 50 cents as a kid. “That sort of died out and you couldn’t find it anywhere, so I brought it back,” he says. Its price is still the same as in his childhood days.
In the course of Royer’s 28 years, ice cream savant is only his most recent role. His range of occupations and passions spans from the depths of punk rock mosh pits to theatre projection booths to kung fu classes. In his early 20s, having gained experience in kitchen settings, he found himself working far from home, helping run a branch of Soul de Cuba in New Haven, Connecticut. More recently, Royer has been performing as Brainplane, a one-man band. He plays a self-built double-neck guitar hooked up to a multi-track looping machine, often while wearing a galaxy-print leotard. The band, which takes lyrical trips to the lands of “jelly-people” and “love-zombies,” has broken up and reunited at least three times.
For the past two years, Royer has been channeling his lifelong eclecticism (or eccentricity) into the divine medium of ice cream. Thankfully for us, he plans to stay in this character for the foreseeable future. Tuesday through Sunday, you can find him in his bright red ice-cream-man apron and bowtie churning out flavors made with fruits, vegetables, and herbs often sourced from nearby farms and customers or foraged on hikes. He plays vinyl records all day and keeps the lights on late into the night. There’s a homemade waffle cone and comfy leather couch waiting for you just steps off the sidewalk. Enter with an open mind, and you will leave with a smile.
Wing Ice Cream is located at 1145 Maunakea St. (Entrance is on Pauahi Street). Keep up with Royer on Instagram @wingicecream.