Monday, November 06, 2006

Poke Here, Poke There

Poke (pronounced poh-kay) is as indigenous to Hawaii as the coconuts and the world-class beaches. The dish is made up of nothing but cubed raw fish, usually ahi tuna, simply seasoned with sea salt and slender slivers of seaweed. It's essentially no-frills sashimi, enjoyed by its native fishermen for centuries, but popularized by perfunctory hotel luaus and celebrity Hawaiian chefs like Sam Choy.

I recently came back from my first trip to our 50th state, where I ate this local delicacy in the quaint town of Hilo, after being empowered by Kirk of the über-food blog, Mmm-yoso, with a roadmap of foods to try and places to try it.

Poke was a high on the list of priorities, but eating it where locals like Kirk would eat it was even more important to me than swimming in the most secluded beaches or snorkeling the bluest lagoons. He suggested KTA, a supermarket chain which sells the stuff by the pound, with locations throughout the Big Island.

But weeks before I even packed a single pair of shorts in my luggage, I went in search of poke in Irvine. And I found it at Nalu's Island Grill, in the Quail Hill Village Center. Here was a poke primer and it was no more than a few clicks away from home.

Which poke was better? Well, it's no contest really. But to be fair, what I had at Nalu's, because of the way I chose to have it, wasn't technically poke in the most traditional sense.

And as for KTA's poke, in addition to weilding the homecourt advantage, the fact that I was eating it while on vacation made it just that much more delicious -- everything tastes better when you're on vacation.

Here's the breakdown.


Its walls plastered with posters of surfers riding cresting waves and an atmosphere reeking of Von Zipper hipness, Nalu Island Grill's main attraction, as with most Hawaiian joints, are the plate lunches. But my eyes immediately locked onto the words "Ahi Poke Salad" like a sailor lured by sirens.

The total sticker price was $7.49, and comes with the ahi either "rare" or "seared". Going against the concept of poke, I chose it seared. And as expected, the tiny chunks of tuna were cooked on a griddle to an opaque and pearly white, each morsel the size of a dinner mint. Placed on top of a bowl of greens with sliced tomato, wilted slivers of onion, diced scallions, and some crunchy fried noodles, the poke was more salad than poke. But it was refreshing nonetheless, introducing me to the dish in baby-steps.

The dressing -- a mix of soy, rice vinegar and sugar -- harbored a spicy bite and perked up the dish like an electric jolt to the system. The tuna, tasted like, well, like tuna; but a few notches above what you get out of a Starkist can. And although the dish had a Chinese Chicken Salad aura to it, its soul was still distinctly Hawaiian.

Nalu's Island Grill
(949) 854-8900
6741 Quail Hill Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92603


Offered at the butcher's counter in the rear of the store and sold by the pound, poke at KTA comes in no less than a dozen dizzying varieties. There were different species and different flavors for the choosing, displayed in glistening mounds and scooped to order into small plastic tubs for weighing.

I had heard that poke is supposed to function as an appetizer or snack, but weeks of anticipation made my eyes bigger than my stomach. After picking out three pokes, we took our bounty outside to eat it on stone picnic tables located at the entrance to the market. With just a few wooden chopsticks in hand and iced bottles of water to wash it down, we gorged ourselves silly. Before we knew it, our poke snack became a full-fledged poke meal.

The Hawaiian Ahi Poke ($7.13) was the brightest in appearance and flavor. As catching to the eyes as polished rubies, the chilled cubes of ahi glinted in the sunlight, and soothed us to the very core with its clean taste and unmitigated freshness.

The measured use of seasoning only enhanced the experience. Dried chili flakes flecked each cube of fish, subjecting our palates to a subtle but slow burn; the crunchy bits of seaweed and sea salt added texture and flavor, respectively.

The Shoyu Ahi Poke ($6.36) was Korean influenced, with sesame oil and sesame seeds giving the raw tuna an oily sheen and a fragrant nuttiness. This and the soy sauce dominated the ahi, and caused it to taste more like marinated raw tuna, and less like poke. But the flavors were robust, bold, and rich. Although I still had an urge to take the whole mix to a hot wok for a quick sear.

A surprising turn was the Tako Miso Poke ($2.63), which delighted and intrigued our tongues. Thinly sliced octopus tentacle was steeped in a deeply tangy and milky-colored miso paste redolent with the mysteriously addictive alcohol sting of white wine. The tender chew of the cooked cephalopod pleased us, especially because every piece of octopus we've encountered in the mainland has been as rubbery as an old tire.

After polishing off the last pieces of the poke, we took a long swig of water and watched as the coconut trees billowed in the tropical breeze.

We were in a supermarket parking lot in Hawaii, and we were on vacation.

KTA Super Stores
(808) 959-4575
50 E Puainako St
Hilo, HI 96720
To see more Big Island food PHOTOS,
--->>> Click HERE <<<---
During the slideshow, click on the middle of a photo to read my commentary.


At 7:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aloha Poke-Mon-ster,

The Tako Miso Poke does look absolutely divine. I myself love octopus, and the miso/white wine marinate does sound addictively tasty.

Am shocked it was as low as $2.63, unless it was a "side." Anyhoo, Mahalo for another intriguing and poetic recap.

-- JB

At 11:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yooooooo man poke is the SHIT!!!! really nice to have with a bottle of beer.

At 3:18 AM, Blogger Juliet said...

Hawaiian sashimi with a name similar to a popular Japanese snack. Sounds yummy! At least from a sahimi loving perspective. Even though I've never had Hawaiian food, the things that went into it I am quite familiar with. What a nice change of pace for you, eating in Hawaii!

At 9:40 AM, Blogger MessyJessy said...

As a former resident of Oahu, and part Hawaiian myself (grandmother born and raised on Maui), I will share in your joy of poke!
I like my poke with a side of steamed white rice...and it does make a difference if you are enjoying in in Hawaii or on the mainland.

Your posts are delicious! Can't wait to see more pictures.

At 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks good Elmo - you had it just the way we do on the Big Island...sit outside on the curb or benches and munch away! We usually buy some rice to go with it! Poke literally means "to slice into pieces" so I guess anything could qualify. Isn't amazing how many different varieties there were? Man, I sure do miss "home".

At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you like Poke, I suggest Ono Ono in RSM. It's fresh, authentic, and best of all, yummy!

At 5:14 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Mahalo! I just love saying that! Did you know that even in Walmart, they say "Mahalo" over the loud speakers?! Wild!

The octopus poke was quite a bit cheaper than the ahi poke, at least by poundage...compound that with the fact that we only asked for just a small helping.

It's too bad I only have the receipt which shows how much we paid per order. I wanted to list how much it was per pound.


It truly is. A beer would've been nice indeed...since it was humid and wicked hot!


You're right about Pocky! It does sound like Poke. And I'm glad I love sashimi, because if I didn't, it would've been quite a culture shock. When you come back to California, there will be a lot of Hawaiian grub waiting for you! Also I think these lunch plate places are slowly making their migration east.


That's what I forgot to eat with it! White rice! That would've been perfect now that I think back. Thanks for the comment. I'll be uploading the rest of my pics soon! Hope you like 'em!


Like I mentioned above, I totally forgot about rice. KTA is a great market, BTW. The selection was just overwhelming, not only on the poke, but also on the marinated meats. They had so many great looking things to cook on the grill!

The Bill and Wendy,

I didn't mention it in my review because my pictures of it didn't come out, but Ono Ono in RSM does indeed have poke. I tried it recently, and it was chunky, cool, and refreshing. The one part that could've made it better was if they just served it by itself. Instead they heap it on to a green salad, which is itself on top of a mound of sticky rice. It makes a big mess. But Wendy, you're right...the ahi is quite fresh, and the seasoning is spot on. I think you might even be able to request that they put the poke on the side.

At 6:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aloha, Elmo! I soooo love the Big Island - it's my favorite island to visit and one that hubby and I have luckily had the opportunity to visit quite often.

While you can get many of the same dishes here on the mainland, there's something about food and Hawaii that is so impossible to beat - tropical breezes, sand between your toes, yummy food even if spam is involved! :)

Mahalo for your wonderful posts, and I can't wait to see your pics.

At 7:20 PM, Blogger Deb said...

Check out Marukai on Harbor Blvd in Costa Mesa or my favorite, Ebisu Supermarket on Brookhurst in Fountain Valley. Both have a pretty nice selection of Hawaiian food (Ebisu reminds me of an island market)and pre-mixed packages of poke seasoning. Just buy sushi grade fish, add the mix and walaaaa! It's very good. Look you're hooked! ;)

At 1:04 AM, Blogger Chubbypanda said...

Awesome. I love poke. Now find me some authentic poke close to us! (^_^)

- Chubbypanda

At 9:52 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

miam miam,

So agree with you on the Big Island. We were amazed that one minute we were in an arid volcanic landscape, and in the next we were in a lush tropical rain forest, and in the next we were in a street lined with pine trees, and in the next we were in emerald green grasslands. What a beautiful and enchanting place the Big Island is. I already miss it.


Great tip on Ebisu! I've eaten at the Mendokoro right next door, but haven't had any reason to go into the actual market...until now!


Believe me, I'm workin' on it! LOL! So far, the best bets are Ono Ono (didn't like the plate lunches though), Nalu (more like a salad), and the new tip I got from Deb, Ebisu...

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Chubbypanda said...


There's no poke at Ebisu. The closest they get to it is takosu. There are, however, tasty beef and chicken rolls. Mmm... Sushi maki with terrestial animals. I'm wondering if Marukai has any poke.

- Chubbypanda

At 9:24 PM, Blogger Daily Gluttony said...


omg elmo, your post and your food pics just reinforce the fact that i am dying to go back to hawaii. *sigh*

and kudos to you for getting your posts up right away--i came back a month and a half ago and i'm still working on my hawaii posts-LOL!

mahalo for the great review as always!

At 11:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Elmo,

I just randomly googled a restaurant review for Alerto's one day a long while ago, and I found your blog! And for the past year that I've visited your blog, you've shown me way too more places to eat than my budget allows! Now my time at UC Irvine is almost up and I wanted to thank you for your honest, no frills critiques! Know of any blogs of SF Bay Area restaurants, where I will be headed after I get my degree? Thanks again for a great blog!

-J. Lee

At 8:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Elmo - Big Island Candies can be damaging to the waistline, huh? ;o)

At 12:15 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Well not ready-made, it sounds like, but I'm willing to gather all the components together. And it appears that Ebisu might take me that far, at least.

Daily Gluttony (Pam),

Sigh. Me too. Before I went, I was afraid I wasn't going to like it since I wilt in hot and humid weather. But now, I'm having Hawaii withdrawals. I want to go back someday soon. Perhaps to Maui to see all the waterfalls you saw.

J. Lee,

Glad to be of service to a fellow Anteater. I wish you the best of luck in SF, and I offer you Passionate Eater's blog for your reading pleasure when you are looking for good tips on food. She's a friend to this blog, and I'm a fan of hers. I think you'll be too.


Tell me about it. I'm addicted now. Our box is down to the last cookie. Now we have to order more online and it's going to cost us a fortune! But we're willing to do it to have those scrumptious hand-dipped beauties.

At 11:39 AM, Blogger Daily Gluttony said...

btw, ever since this whole wedding planning stuff started, big island candies have been damaging to both our waistlines and wallets. we gave them out as wedding favors, so in the last few months we have ordered SEVERAL boxes for samples, the actual favors, etc, each time ordering an extra box or two "just in case" and paying all the astronomical shipping to go with! do we have a problem here? yes, i think we do! =P

At 11:59 AM, Blogger e d b m said...

Hey Elmo, very nice posting. I only had my first experience w/ poke last year in Oahu and it was great. I dont' think the place the we had it was very authentic but definitely did the job. As soon as I get my hands on fresh ogo seaweed, i'm making it. The tako miso looks great, never seen it. The soy sauce, ogo, maui onion and sesame oil version is still my fave.

At 4:36 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...


You too huh?! My question is what do they put in those shortbreads. It's either crack, or butter. My suspicion is that it's both.


Although poke should be easier to make at home that sushi or sashimi, the tricky part is finding the components. Sounds like a market near here has all of it. But coincidentally, Hilo Hattie in Kona had a poke kit. Wasn't going to shell out the money for it, but someone had the right idea.

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great trip! I was on the Big Island in May for 2 weeks and didn't have anywhere near the experience you had! Have you been to Maui? Going in Feb. and would love any suggestions. Love your blogs!

-fellow Northpark resident : )

At 10:34 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Fellow Northparker,

Glad you are enjoying my blog. Big Island was just a great experience all around. A perfect primer for a guy who's never been to Hawaii. Maui? That's my next stop.

At 2:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My work got Naru's Island Grill as catering last week. It was the best food I had in YEARs. It blew me away on how good it was. I had to go there again two days later.

The Maui Katchu Chicken and the Steak (forget name) was the best.

I also recommend Haus of Pizza on Harbor as the best pizza place. We go there many times a week.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Cheryl said...

Thought I'd help you guys out.

First, don't ever eat too much Ahi Poke. My cousin made the GREAT mistake of telling me too late, that the kukui nuts that they sprinkle on there, acts like a laxative. Of course, it was after I ate about a good half pound of the stuff. lol

Secondly. Ready? Maki-Maki at the Spectrum (back in 2004) had a great poke bowl. I also go to this local sushi/japanese place in Fountain Valley. They have a poke bowl, for me, it's the closest thing to the real thing (and spicy too). Can't think of the name, but it's off of Brookhurst/Ellis next to the Radio Shack/Subway/Mimi's Cafe.

Lastly, you can buy the "makings" of poke at Marukai (costa mesa on harbor, small package), and buy the tuna, and make it yourself. So ono!!! Just watch how much salt you use. lol.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Cheryl said...

Thought I'd help you guys out.

First, don't ever eat too much Ahi Poke. My cousin made the GREAT mistake of telling me too late, that the kukui nuts that they sprinkle on there, acts like a laxative. Of course, it was after I ate about a good half pound of the stuff. lol

Secondly. Ready? Maki-Maki at the Spectrum (back in 2004) had a great poke bowl. I also go to this local sushi/japanese place in Fountain Valley. They have a poke bowl, for me, it's the closest thing to the real thing (and spicy too). Can't think of the name, but it's off of Brookhurst/Ellis next to the Radio Shack/Subway/Mimi's Cafe.

Lastly, you can buy the "makings" of poke at Marukai (costa mesa on harbor, small package), and buy the tuna, and make it yourself. So ono!!! Just watch how much salt you use. lol.

At 9:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i live in hilo and actually buy my poke from that kta!

i hate fish, and raw fish especially, but one of my friends made me try the shoyu poke and i've been hooked ever since. not only do they have good poke, but that kta has wonderful seasoned steak as well. :)

At 4:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bristol Farms in Newport now has a Poke bar with 4-5 different choices.


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