Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Hello New York, this is the real poke

Nadine Kam photos
At Da Hawaiian Poke Co. at the Kapahulu Safeway Center, Kellsie Ladegaard shows the shop’s ahi limu poke.


Like Hawaii fashion before it, Hawaii food is trending across the country.

Last year, I traveled to San Francisco for a taste of Hawaii at Liholiho Yacht Club, where chef Ravi Kapur’s Spam fried rice won the restaurant a place in Bon Appetit and the Washington Post deemed his Chinese-style steamed buns with beef tongue and cucumber kimchi as one of its “Top dishes from each of America’s 10 best food cities.”

Trying to make sense of this phenom and how it all started, Jennifer Conrad, writing for Vogue, said, “In New York, as these things often happen, Hawaiian restaurants came in a crashing wave starting around 2013. Onomea in Williamsburg makes dishes like loco moco (white rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg, and gravy) and shoyu chicken (soy sauce–marinated drumsticks with greens and macaroni salad) accompanied by rum-spiked fresh juices.”

She also added restaurants Suzume, Makana, and Noreetuh to the mix. (Noreetuh might actually be good so I need to go check it out.)

The classic ahi poke with ogo, green onions and inamona.

But the dish of the moment is poke because of the healthier option of having a fish- rather than meat-based meal.

Only question is, how well do mainlanders know poke? On Facebook, an Insider Food video about the “poké” craze sweeping Manhattan recently sparked outrage among diners with local ties, drawing about 7,000 mostly negative comments, because what they’re creating at Wisefish and other restaurants is not poke as we know it. Instead of incorporating ingredients into the mixture, they are building salads by piling raw fish over vegetables, and covering the fish with toppings and sauces. (And yes your eyes didn’t deceive you. It’s picked up a diacritical mark at places like Poké Works and Wisefish Poké, to help beginners get the pronunciation right.)

As one of the more moderate toned commenters posted, “They couldn’t be doing poke any more wrong, and this has been a staple in Hawaii for so long. Small kine late guys, come to Hawaii if you wanna know what real poke taste like.”

I get that, just as has happened throughout history, food evolves as it crosses oceans and is reinvented as it embraces indigenous ingredients. Poke has certainly evolved here from the time the first Hawaiian fishermen augmented their fish with alae and ogo, the ingredients readily available to them. Over time, with immigration, people added their own flavors to the mix: green onions from the garden, soy sauce, tobiko, sesame oil, Sriracha, and more.
 Da Hawaiian Poke Co also gives clams ($6 per pound) and below, peeled shrimp, the poke treatment.

Kim chee shrimp poke was recently being offered at $11 per pound.

Sesame tako poke was recently offered for $13 a pound.

Perhaps chef Sam Choy had the biggest influence over the direction of poke when he launched his annual poke festival and competition in the early 1990s, causing an explosion in styles and ingredients. Most audaciously, he started searing the traditionally raw dish, and by 1997 was serving up “Sam’s original fried poke” at Sam Choy’s Breakfast, Lunch and Crab. A year later, he was calling it “Fried Poke Magic.”

The biggest offense is that missing from all these national media outlets is … Hawaii. No one is heaping these accolades on local purveyors of poke, in the place where poke was born and where it’s most ono.

Outsiders might be viewing Hawaii as a land of angry people. But we are just tired of being marginalized and seeing local culture misrepresented. Respect.

At Da Hawaiian Poke Co., Kellsie Ladegaard builds a poke bowl.

That said, we are certainly lucky to enjoy some of the best poke on the planet, and entering the arena is Da Hawaiian Poke Co., now open at the Safeway Kapahulu Center. This shop is not to be confused with Da Poke Shack Honolulu food truck.

Talk about evolution of poke, Da Hawaiian Poke Co. is the first Honolulu bricks-and-mortar outlet to offer an “Aloha Your Way” poke bar that allows diners to customize, not just their bowl, but the poke itself.

For an $11 regular (6 ounces) or $14 large (9 ounces) portion, choose from locally caught ahi, Atlantic salmon, Aloha Tofu, shrimp, tako, or a combination of two of these ingredients, add a splash of Hawaiian, spicy, wasbi, sweet ginger shoyu, Chinese-style ginger negi or yuzu ponzu sauces, and finish with any of 18 toppings or extra sauces such as spicy aioli, wasabi aoili, kabayaki or sweet chili. Toppings of avocado, Maine lobster, ikura, uni, blue crab and shredded nori come with an additional charge of 50 cents to $2.

Da Hawaiian Poke Co.’s Shaka Bowl, recently $22, features spicy ahi poke (which could use more spice), Maine lobster poke with wasabi foam, yuzu tobiko, furikake wasabi salmon poke, ikura, uni, daikon sprouts, salmon skin and kabayaki sauce, layered over your choice of white, brown or sushi rice.

A little simpler is the California Bowl, with Maine lobster poke and wasabi foam, yuzu tobiko, daikon sprouts, and avocado.

If everyone orders custom poke, the operation could get bogged down, but the shop is in a place that doesn’t draw the same kind of rush crowd as a food court. But operationally, it’s something to think about, given the company’s ambitious plans to expand to Asia and the U.S. continent

You can also build your own Aloha Bowl ($11, $14) using your custom poke, starting with a choice of white, brown or vinegared sushi rice, or an additional $1.50 to start with a base of Waipoli Farm Greens; or build a bowl with Aloha Tofu poke ($7, $9), or one of the house specialty poke selections ($10, $13). The bowls come with your choice of tossed, ocean or potato/pasta salad that has more spaghetti noodles than potatoes, but I like it anyway.

Spicy ahi poke is always a staple. Here, it's not very hot. Recipes were created by Kauai chef and educator Mark Oyama, which makes me think they can't take as much heat as we can on Oahu. All the spicy and wasabi offerings here need to be amped up about four or five times to match most other Oahu outlets.

It’s pricier, but the house Shaka Bowl ($22) combining spicy ahi poke (which could use more spice), Maine lobster poke with wasabi foam, yuzu tobiko, furikake wasabi salmon poke, ikura, uni, daikon sprouts, salmon skin and kabayaki sauce, is well worth the splurge. The sweet Santa Barbara uni used is not always available, but in that case, they double up on the lobster poke, one of my favorites here.

New York, try to top that!

Da Hawaiian Poke Co. is at Safeway Kapahulu Center, 870 Kapahulu Ave. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Call (808) 425-4954.

Nadine Kam is Style Editor and staff restaurant critic at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser; her coverage is in print on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Contact her via email at and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Rebel Mouse.

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