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. The Washington Post deemed Kapur’s Chinese-style steamed buns with beef tongue and cucumber kim chee one of its “Top dishes from each of America’s 10 best food cities.”
DA HAWAIIAN POKE CO.
Safeway Kapahulu Center, 870 Kapahulu Ave.
Food: * * * 1/2
Service: * * * *
Value: * * * 1/2
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays
* * * * – excellent
* * * – very good
* * – average
* – below average
But the dish of the moment is poke because of the healthier option of 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 sparked outrage among diners with local ties. The issue: 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.
I get that food evolves as it crosses oceans and indigenous ingredients are incorporated. Poke has certainly evolved here from the time the first Hawaiian fishermen augmented their fish with alae and ogo. With immigration, people added their own flavors: green onions from the garden, soy sauce, tobiko, sesame oil, Sriracha and more.
Perhaps chef Sam Choy had the biggest influence over the direction of poke when he launched his annual poke festival in the early 1990s, resulting in an explosion of styles and ingredients. Most audaciously, he seared the traditionally raw dish and by 1997 was serving up “Sam’s original fried poke” at Sam Choy’s Breakfast, Lunch & Crab.
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. Respect. In national exchanges, Hawaii comes across as a place of angry people, but we are just tired of being marginalized and seeing our culture misrepresented by those who have never set foot here.
THAT SAID, we are 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.
Talking about the evolution of poke, Da Hawaiian Poke Co. is the first Honolulu brick-and-mortar outlet to offer an “Aloha Your Way” poke bar that allows diners to customize not just their bowls, but the poke itself.
For an $11 6-ounce or $14 9-ounce portion, choose from locally caught ahi, Atlantic salmon, tofu, shrimp, tako or a combination of two ingredients; add a splash of Hawaiian, spicy, wasabi, sweet ginger soy sauce, Chinese-style ginger negi or yuzu ponzu sauces; and finish with any of 18 toppings or extra sauces such as spicy aioli, wasabi aioli, 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.
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. Still, it’s something to think about, given the company’s ambitious plans to expand to Asia and the mainland.
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 Waipouli Farm Greens; or build a bowl with tofu poke ($7, $9) or one of the house specialty poke selections ($10, $13). The bowls come with a choice of tossed, ocean or potato/pasta salad that has more spaghetti noodles than potatoes, but I like it anyway.
The house specialties were created by Kauai- based chef and culinary educator Mark Oyama, a partner in the endeavor. They must like lighter flavors on Kauai, because where you see spice or wasabi on the menu, it needs to be four times hotter to match other Oahu outlets.
It’s pricier, but the house Shaka Bowl ($22) is well worth the splurge. It combines 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. The sweet Santa Barbara uni used is not always available; in that case they double the lobster poke, one of my favorites here.
New York, try to top that!
In the communal spirit of enjoying poke at potluck, the company wants to help the community. This month, $2 from each sale of the bowl named after Hawaii News Now personality Grace Lee will go to her charity of choice, the Hawaiian Humane Society. In March the charity is March of Dimes, selected by HNN’s Dan Cooke.
Nadine Kam’s “Weekly Eater” restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com. “Bite Size” documents the new, the small, the unsung.