When Nino "Neens" Camilo started his I Love Poke Festival in San Diego seven years ago, it was to satisfy the cravings of diners who couldn't find the popular Hawaiian dish anywhere on local menus.
Today - perhaps thanks in part to the tastes awakened by the festival - the dish can be found on the menus at most area seafood outlets and gastropubs. It's also the centerpiece at more than a dozen recently opened restaurants, including San Diego Poke Company, Pokirrito, Poke Go, Poke Etc., It's Raw Poke Shop, Poke UTC and the soon-to-open Poke One N Half.
I Love Poke Festival
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Bali Hai, 2230 Shelter Island Drive, San Diego
Poke (pronounced "POH-keh") is a Hawaiian-born salad made with chunks of raw fish, seaweed, salt, shaved kukui nuts and other mix-ins like shoyu sauce, onions, sesame seeds and seasoning. Most poke dishes feature ahi tuna, but Camilo said he's seen albacore used locally and marlin is a popular alternative in Hawaii.
Poke was traditionally a dish eaten by commoners in Hawaii, where it is often found in grocery store deli cases, served by the scoop, even for breakfast. In recent years, mainland restaurants have begun dressing it up with extra ingredients and serving it as more of a gourmet appetizer. Although the ingredients vary, Camilo said it's the quintessential Hawaiian dish.
"In one bowl this dish represents all that Hawaii is, from the ocean, the land and the melting pot of people that inhabit it," Camilo said.
Next Tuesday, the I Love Poke Festival returns to the Bali Hai Restaurant on Shelter Island. This year's event will feature 20 area chefs competing for the "Best Poke" prize. There will also be a marketplace where more than a dozen Hawaiian and Asian food purveyors will be offering samples.
Prizes (including Tiger USA rice cookers and Vessel bags) will be awarded by a judging panel that includes three past first-place winners, fishmonger Tommy Gomes of Catalina Offshore Products, and Hawaiian MMA fighter Ilima-Lei Macfarlane.
The San Diego festival, which sells out every year, is one of three poke events that Camilo produces, including events in Orange County and Seattle. Camilo, 37, was born and raised in San Diego, but as a lifelong surfer and longtime hula dancer, he has a passion for all things Hawaiian and visits the islands regularly.
Camilo said there's a difference between how chefs prepare the dish on the islands and on the mainland. For example, California-style poke is usually served with chips rather than rice. Local poke is also often mixed with avocado and occasionally pressed into a cylindrical tower shape. But the biggest difference from the original, Camilo said, is the absence of Hawaiian-grown ingredients.
"We on the mainland can always do our best impression of Hawaii, but we will never be Hawaii, and that's OK," he said. "We just don't have the same seaweed available here, our salt tastes different, our onions taste different. It's all just a little bit different. ... I always try to make it so that someone would not be able to tell that it's not from their homeland."
The winner of last year's festival was Zarlitos Family Restaurant in National City, which Camilo said got "super close" to producing a traditional poke.
"The style, flavor and presentation of Zarlitos poke will just bring you back to Hawaii, and I feel that was the thing that gave them the edge," he said.
While poke is exploding in popularity nationwide, Camilo said that industry growth comes with pros and cons.
"The good is that people from Hawaii who live on the mainland have more opportunity to eat the food that they love and miss. The bad is that there will always be diluted versions from the original," he said.
Neens' Top 10 Poke Picks
While he won't pick a favorite for next week's I Love Poke Festival, event producer Nino "Neens" Camilo did offer his personal choices for good poke eats around San Diego County year-round.
- Costco Carlsbad . From the research that I have done with the head of Costco's seafood department, I know that their poke is sourced from a partner seafood distributor in Hawaii. The recipes and ingredients are as Hawaiian as it will get. Ask your local Costco when and if they will stock it. 951 Palomar Airport Road, Carlsbad. (760) 929-0963 or costco.com
- Fish 101. Simple, consistent and fresh are the key words for anything at Fish 101. Enough said. 1468 N. Coast Highway 101, Encinitas . (760) 943-6221 or fish101restaurant.com
- The Lanai Leucadia. Eating at The Lanai will make you feel like you are on the North Shore of Oahu. Their poke is made with a Hawaiian palate and they offer a bunch of varieties, but I recommend the Furikake (fish seasoning). 1114 N. Coast Highway 101, Encinitas. (760) 613-4564 or thelanaileucadia.com
- It's Raw Poke Shop. I haven't had their poke, but a few of my Hawaii friends give them the approval, so I put them on this list. The pop-up food stand can be found at local farmers markets and breweries. Schedule: itsrawpokeshop.com
- Seaside Market. Fresh poke available every day by the scoop, across the street from Cardiff Campgrounds. Doesn't sound too bad to me. 2087 San Elijo Ave., Cardiff. (760) 753-5445 or seasidemarket.com
- San Diego Poke Co. From farmers markets to brick and mortar, these guys have built a solid following and seem to be getting a pretty solid response. Their first store opened May 1. I have yet to visit, but from what I've seen it looks really good. 10387 Friars Road, Mission Valley. (619) 584-4786 or sdpokeco.com
- Fishbone Kitchen. Owner Dan Nattrass has been working with seafood for years, so if anyone knows what fresh is, it's him. I haven't tried his recipe yet, but I'm gonna head over there ASAP. Liberty Public Market, 2820 Historic Decatur Road, Liberty Station. libertypublicmarket.com/artisans/fishbone-kitchen/
- Bali Hai Restaurant. Chef Dion Morales has placed in the I Love Poke festival before. They do poke mainland-style as a stack with wonton chips. Couple that with a Bali Hai mai tai and the view. 2230 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island. (619) 222-1181 or balihairestaurant.com
- ILNLYF Foods. This mobile food service is owned by Chef Maui, and he is from Maui. He placed in I Love Poke and has so much aloha spirit. Find him and his wife, Jenn, serving poke at farmers markets; they deliver and do catering as well. They serve at area farmers markets Tuesdays-Saturdays. (619) 761-9128. Schedule: ilnlyffoods.com
- Zarlitos Family Restaurant. People from Oceanside make the drive to National City just for their poke. They competed at all three I Love Poke events last year and took first place in San Diego and Orange County and second place in Seattle. That has never happened before and might not happen again. 505 E Eighth St., National City. (619) 474-1144 or zarlitos.com