Today, every big city has a poke joint or three. Eating poke is a way of life for people in Hawaii, long before the U.S. Mainland got in the raw-fish frenzy. In Hawaiian, “poke” means “to slice, cut crosswise into pieces,” the essence of this fresh, bite-size staple. Asian influences in Hawaii led to the invention of the poke bowl — poke served over white rice. Traditional poke is simple: It’s freshly caught and cubed fish, mixed with sea salt, ground kukui nut, salty limu or ogo, which is Hawaii seaweed, crunchy sweet onions, and chili pepper water.
“Poke is everywhere here,” says Stephan Bel-Robert, the owner of Pacific’O restaurant on Maui. “From luaus to every restaurant and grocery store to even liquor stores!”
The ingredients used to make this elemental dish are often found only in the islands — like the limu or kukui nut — and prepared by skillful people trained to make it authentic.
“While we love that people across the country are discovering a favorite dish of ours, we are concerned about the impact of poke’s rise in Mainland popularity,” says Anna Brown, the assistant dining room manager at Hilo Bay Cafe on Hawaii Island. “At Hilo Bay Cafe, we are fortunate enough to be able to serve ahi caught in our waters by fishermen we know…. We’d love to see Mainland restaurants try poke using fish that are locally available to them and seeking more sustainable ways to source their fish. Additionally, some tasty and highly-sustainable alternative options can be made using veggies.”
While the poke trend continues its wave of popularity across the Mainland, the best place to eat it will always be straight from the source in Hawaii. Here are four top Hawaii restaurants for authentic poke – locally caught, of course.
Moku Kitchen, Honolulu, Oahu
In Hawaiian, “moku” means district or island, so you know the food at Moku Kitchen in Honolulu is locally sourced. The eatery is helmed by Hawaii Regional Chef Peter Merriman, who owns restaurants on Hawaii Island, Maui, and Kauai and is known for fostering relationships with the Islands’ farmers, ranchers, and fishers and cultivating regional menus. And for a traditional Hawaiian staple like poke, it’s no exception. Moku Kitchen offers two varieties of the classic on its lunch and dinner menus. There’s the Ginger, Ahi, Shoyu Poke, made with Maui onion and served on local taro chips. For a modern twist on the classic, order the Hapa Poke. It comes with perfectly cut local ahi and ono (wahoo fish) mixed with kukui nut, sesame, shoyu, and jalapeño pepper for a kick. Make a reservation at M0ku Kitchen.
Pacific’O, Lahaina, Maui
Pacific’O is a Hawaiian Regional Cuisine restaurant so it stands to reason this Lahaina, Maui, beachfront establishment has poke on its dinner menu. The Local Style Poke features locally-caught ahi tossed with ogo seaweed, inamona (toasted and ground kukui nuts), and charred onion. The poke is served with Molokai sweet potato chips. Pacific’O is owned by Stephan Bel-Robert, who also owns O’o Farm in upcountry Maui. This results in a farm-to-table dining experience, paired with fish from the nearby Lahaina Harbor. Make a reservation at Pacific’O.
Hilo Bay Café, Hilo, Hawaii Island
The Hawaiian Ahi Poke has been on the menu at Hilo Bay Cafe since the restaurant opened in 2003. The restaurant gets its fish from Hawaii Island fisherman — not only for the poke, but also the Kona lobster, snapper, wahoo, and more on its menus. The Hawaiian Ahi Poke is made with fresh tuna, white onions from Oahu, shoyu, and Hawaiian chili pepper oil. It’s served with a side of Hilo Bay Cafe’s housemade Okinawan purple sweet potato chips. Want a stellar sunset with your dinner? Book a table at Hilo Bay Cafe in the evening and ask for a table by the water. Make a reservation at Hilo Bay Café.
HoloHolo Grill, Koloa, Kauai
Celebrity chef and Hawaiian Sam Choy created the menu at HoloHolo Grill in the Koloa Landing Resort in south Kauai, so you know the poke here is good. In fact, Choy has garnered the nickname “The Godfather of Poke.” (His popular cookbooks and appearances on food TV shows have helped shine the spotlight on the Hawaii dish.) You can order two types of poke here — the Kamaaina and the Ke Kai. The Kamaaina, which means native-born in Hawaiian, is made with ahi, shoyu, ogo seaweed, and inamona (toasted and ground kukui nuts). Ke Kai is a tako poke made with octopus, sambal, cucumbers, and sesame oil. Can’t decide which one to get? Order the Duo Poke Tasting, which comes with both the ahi and tako varieties. The fish for both is sourced from Port Allen harbor, Kauai’s main fishing harbor. Make a reservation at HoloHolo Grill.
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Tiffany Hill is a freelance writer based in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she writes about travel, culture, and business. Read more about her here.
Photo credits: Anna Brown (Hilo Bay Cafe); James Kimo Garrett (Moku).