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Mainland Poke Sucks

Hawai‘i is the only place that gets it right

About a decade ago, during one of my sporadic trips back home to Honolulu, my dad passed along a lunch tip. “It's called FRESH CATCH,” he wrote. “Just a couple of yrs old and run by a local boy who went to culinary school on the mainland. Good POKE, I heard.”

Like many local families, mine is totally food-obsessed. My dad grew up around the Board of Water Supply cafeteria where my grandmother cooked in the ’50s and, later on, opened a couple of family-style restaurants himself. And as a displaced island boy on the East Coast, homesick but eager to keep up with the scene, I chase after every new recommendation, whether it’s the latest outpost of Ed Kenny’s locavore empire or some overlooked Lāʻie lunch counter with a banging loco moco.

Fresh Catch turned out to be a no-frills joint — my dad’s area of expertise — inhabiting the squat building I knew as my childhood Pizza Hut. The iconic silhouette had been repainted top to bottom in a cheery ocean blue. Inside, the defining feature was a deli counter whose glass display case held tubs of poke, served by the pound. I ordered a quarter-pound of ‘ahi limu poke — the most traditional, made with cubed yellowfin tuna, chopped limu seaweed, and chopped kukui nuts — and another quarter-pound of shoyu poke, slick with a soy sauce base. The ‘ahi was obviously fresh, never frozen, judging both by the texture, which was firm but not chewy, and taste, which was mild. The marinade, saline and savory, had just the right pop without overpowering the fish.

Poke (pronounced POH-kay) is unpretentious soul food in Hawai‘i, the stuff of a Sunday afternoon beach picnic, a high-school football tailgate, a pau hana happy hour. It’s something I used to take for granted, the way a native New Yorker might shrug at the rugged excellence of a corner slice. During that first visit to Fresh Catch, I’m sure some part of me wondered what a mainland culinary-school grad was even doing, putting his faith in a poke-centric business model. Poke could be found at every Foodland supermarket on the island. Fresh Catch’s was several notches better, to be sure — but could there really be enough interest to sustain it, over the long haul?

Poke is not a sad desk salad topping

Clearly, I was never cut out to be a restaurant consultant. I couldn’t have imagined then what poke would become: That it would stage a full-scale mainland invasion, beginning with a fast-casual takeover of SoCal; that anyone would ever dream of ordering a mango-avocado poke bowl, or other aberrant fixings like quinoa or pineapple; or that media outlets from NBC New York to the New York Daily News would run stories about “the poke craze” sweeping New York, as if it were this season’s cronut. Nor could I have known just how low the bar for quality and authenticity could slide, with no apparent dip in the enthusiasms of a unwitting new consumer base.

If anything, the trend suggests a sort of weird, inverted graph line: There hasn’t been a previous moment in human history when so many people have been so psyched to eat so much lousy poke. It’s as if everyone woke up one day and decided to start crooning a gibberish ditty called “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula,” as a show of their worldly insouciance. (Yes, of course this is a thing that really happened, just over a century ago. Don’t get me started on the current Hawaii Five-O.) But look: I’m not really a culinary originalist, hung up on The Way Things Ought to Be. I love a smart, outrageous hybrid as much as the next Korean taco fan. But I’ve been observing this situation long enough to be able to call it straight: Your Seamlessed poke bowl is probably making a fool out of you.

In Hawai‘i, poke’s origins predate the historical record. Well before Captain Cook “discovered” what he called the Sandwich Islands in 1778, native Hawaiians were slicing reef fish and mixing in limu (edible algae) and a paste of kukui nuts, called ‘inamona, to create the dish. The word “poke,” which simply means “to cut crosswise into pieces,” gives more of an indication of serving instructions than desired ingredients.

Like so much in island life, the dish has been shaped by a blend of cultural influences. ‘Ahi shoyu poke is a case in point. “The chili peppers and onions came by way of explorers from Europe and missionaries from America,” writes Martha Cheng, the Honolulu-based author of The Poke Cookbook (and Eater Guide to Hawai‘i consulting editor). “Descendants from the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean laborers — brought to work Hawaii’s sugar and pineapple plantations — influenced poke with their own raw fish traditions and replaced the salt and inamona with shoyu and sesame oil.” These days, you’ll find other Asian poke variations in the islands, incorporating things like kimchi or wasabi, while ‘ahi shares a place at the poke counter with aku (skipjack tuna) and he‘e (octopus), more commonly known by its Japanese name, tako. As a kid, the version I saw most often at the family table was my grandmother’s tako poke, probably because sliced octopus was cheaper than tuna and kept longer in the fridge.

So what’s my problem? Put simply, much of the poke served by mainland purveyors is, as any local would put it, junk. Poke isn’t a name you just slap on any dish with cubed raw fish and a whiff of balmy orientalism. It isn’t meant to accommodate gloppy sauces and random mix-ins — from cilantro to sweet corn to coconut shavings, and again with the pineapple. I’m not even really down with the concept of a poke bowl itself, though by now they can be found all over the islands, alongside more standard options. Poke served over a heap of steaming rice? Over soba noodles? Over ribbons of kale? No, not for me. But I’d have less of an issue if the poke were better, categorically.

Why is this happening?

The essence of poke is freshness. But the fish in most mainland versions — and even back home, at Foodland and elsewhere — is likely to be previously frozen, and a cheap commodity product at that. A dismaying amount of tuna on the market comes from longline fishermen in the waters off the Marshall Islands or Micronesia. It was caught weeks, maybe months ago, then treated with carbon monoxide to preserve its color. The labor practices and sustainability impact of this industry are, if anything, even more unpalatable. As a Huffington Post headline succinctly put it a couple of years ago, “Pacific Tuna Fishing is Out of Control” — a fleet of floating sweatshops hauling in fish with rampant disregard for environmental impact, fair wages or the precarious condition of tuna stocks.

I’ve had so-so poke in Los Angeles, served by a guy who didn’t pretend to understand the culture he’d jacked. I didn’t have the heart to conduct a proper journalistic sampling of spots in New York City, but I did pay a recent visit, with as much hopeful excitement as I could muster, to a place called POKEE on West Third Street in the Village. This fast-casual counter shop, listed at No. 5 on Eater New York’s Poke Heatmap, applies the Chipotle model to poke prep: you choose your base, your add-ins, your dressing and toppings. (For choice of protein, there’s even chicken. Which, I hope you understand, isn’t in any way a poke bowl; it’s more like a salad from Chop’t.)

I ordered yellowfin tuna over white rice, with the dressing they call “Hawaii Tradition” — some kind of sweet soy-ginger glaze, better suited to a Chicken McNugget — and a garnish of hijiki seaweed, daikon radish and diced cucumber. The ahi came in a hue of millennial pink, looking less like the uncooked flesh of a yellowfin than like one of my kids’ Duplo Lego blocks. The mouthfeel was odd: I noticed a crunch, as if biting down onto cartilage. And there was no saving the blandness of this fish: dredging it in a bowl with Hawaii Tradition was no help. Even the rice was lame. I choked down half my portion and went around the corner to grab a slice.

But it’s worth noting that at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, POKEE was packed. Maybe it was the healthful halo that a bowl of bright-pink tuna and veggies can confer. Maybe it was just the power of suggestion — all those trend pieces talking about how you can’t miss the latest Hawaiian export. Or maybe the people queuing up simply didn’t know any better, and even rancid poke holds some weird appeal. According to its website, “POKEE is now preparing a second location in NYC and another in Virginia after only 4 months of opening.”

In search of redemption, I visited the Midtown East outpost of Sweetcatch, another popular poke chain, but one with the foresight to hire a consulting chef who lives in Hawaii, Lee Anne Wong, whom I know both from her combative stint on Top Chef and her inspired work at Koko Head Cafe in Honolulu. In an interview, Wong made the good point that poke is meant to be marinated, not tossed. She also emphasized freshness and sustainability, rather than convenience and cost.

Literally help

Sweetcatch has a bright, efficient air, more akin to a cupcake shop than a seafood restaurant. The poke was arrayed in serving trays on ice, and served by the scoop. Though intrigued by options like the spicy yuzu and wasabi shoyu, I stuck to my baseline and ordered an ‘ahi poke with shoyu, green onions and ogo, a common type of limu. I was suitably impressed, maybe even a little transported. This was about as good a poke as I’d expect to find in Hawai‘i from a place like Tamura’s Fine Wine & Liquors, if not at my absolute favorite purveyors. It was a bit pricier than other options around town. I’d say it’s worth that premium.

But Sweetcatch is an outlier, swimming against the larger current. Look at the proliferation of abominable poke joints across the land — places that use zingy add-ins to mask the funk or freezer burn of the fish. Again, I haven’t taken the gonzo step of a progressive inland poke tour, but what wonders do you really think you’ll find at Poki Poki, in Albuquerque, or PokéMix, in Wichita? (For what it’s worth, the local Yelp commentariat has seen fit to award both places with 4.5-star ratings. I could be wrong; I’m honestly not that tempted to find out.)

One day this past spring, I was in a hotel room flipping channels and came across a rerun of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives featuring Reno Henriques — the “local boy who went to culinary school” that my dad told me about almost a decade ago. Guy Fieri is, sensibly, a big fan of Fresh Catch. “I could sit here and eat this by the bucketful,” he tells Henriques after an undainty bite of limu poke. I’m guessing that for some of Fieri’s viewers, this was their gateway. I can’t argue with his enthusiasm. But now the whole mainland wants to eat poke by the bucketful, which only means a further degradation of standards. (Think of it as the difference between the small-scale, cult-fave dishes that Fieri samples on his flagship cable show and the corporate cafeteria slop he serves at his flagship restaurant chain.) Maybe I’ll try another breezily efficient poke joint in Manhattan, but if I ever choose to do so in Missoula, Montana, the only bucket I’ll bring will be there as a precaution.

Am I suggesting, finally, that poke can only truly be enjoyed on island turf? Of course not — no more than a bistecca alla Fiorentina can only truly be enjoyed in Florence. (Which is to say: Not really, but ...) What matters is the provenance of your ingredients, the respect in your preparation, and the casually gracious spirit around the table. The aloha, let’s say. While writing this piece, I made a batch myself, using half a pound of gorgeous ‘ahi from a trusted fishmonger. I added rehydrated ogo, coarse Hawaiian sea salt, chopped green onion, a few pinches of chili flakes, and a small glug of sesame oil. I gently mixed the poke with my fingers and let it stand, chilled, for about an hour. There’s nothing fancy or faddish about this preparation, which brings a hint of modernity to the ancient methods. But it’s broke-da-mouthono, as some folks back home would put it. I trust it. And in some elusive but palpable way, it tastes like home.

Nate Chinen is a music critic and director of editorial content at WBGO. He left Honolulu for the east coast more than 20 years ago, and doesn't make it back as often as he should.
All photos of NYC poke, some of which is probably TOTALLY FINE, stolen from Eater New York’s Robert Sietsema.

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