Food & Drink / Ask five locals where to get the best poke, and you’re likely to get five different answers. It’s not just a matter of loyalty or proximity; for a dish with just five ingredients (give or take one or two), there’s an incredible amount of variety in quality as well as style: Limu or no limu? Sesame seeds or kukui nut? How big are the ahi chunks? Readymade or mixed to order? There’s a lot of room for interpretation in this ubiquitous dish.
We set out to find Honolulu’s best poke, searching high and low, tasting good ahi and…not so good ahi.
To keep things manageable, we established a few guidelines to narrow down our search. First, we only tackled take-out spots where poke is a main or notable offering. That means we didn’t visit sit-down restaurants that feature poke on the menu, nor did we include supermarkets.
Second, to make apples to apples comparisons, we ordered the same thing at each location: shoyu ahi poke. Sometimes we also ordered other items if they looked unusual or particularly good, but they are only noted here where exceptional.
Each sample was judged against a set of basic criteria:
• Freshness of fish–obviously important
• “Meltiness”–that is, presence or absence of connective tissue in the ahi
• Size of ahi pieces–and consistency thereof
• Balance of flavor–specifically, can you taste the fish, or do the other ingredients dominate?
After much nibbling, comparing and debating, there were some clear winners, and some surprising duds (which, for their sakes, are not listed here). Our favorites are detailed below, with the very best ones listed first:
If you usually go to Tamura’s just for their wine and liquor (guilty as charged), it’s very easy to overlook the poke counter nestled in the back in the grocery section. But the shoyu poke here is worthwhile, and the perfect snack to go with any of Tamura’s excellent beer offerings. The fat ahi cubes are dressed with sesame, scallion and onion; the chile-spiked shoyu comes on the side, so you can dress it to your liking just before chowing down.
Also try: “Special Tamura” ahi poke, which sports a sweet oyster sauce applied with a light hand.
At $14 per pound, Ono’s was one of the pricier pokes we sampled, but it was also one of the best. At first glance, this version might appear to be too heavily laden with “stuff.” However, the medley of chili, limu, onion and kukui manages to enhance the ahi’s flavor rather than mask it. Still, the standard shoyu poke has more heat than most. Ono’s ahi dice isn’t as big as some other places, but the quality of the fish is outstanding.
Also try: The spicy tuna with tobiko is super creamy…and super addictive.
The ahi poke at Keeaumoku Seafood is, in a word, unbeatable. Mixed to order, the ruby cubes of ahi, strips of sweet onion and sesame seeds are perfectly glazed with shoyu. The ahi, succulent and rich, couldn’t be any fresher. Plus, the minuscule shop is in the same building as a kimchee store and a lunchwagon, making it easy to round out the meal.
Also try: Any of the many varieties of non-ahi poke, which feature mussels, abalone and jellyfish.
1223 Keeaumoku St., Mon.-Sat. 9:30am-8:30pm, Sun 10am-7pm, 942-7792
Unlike some of the down-home, hole-in-the-wall poke spots, Poke Stop boasts quite the pedigree. Chef and Maui native Elmer Guzman is a graduate of Kapiolani Community College’s culinary program and has worked alongside Alan Wong and Emeril Lagasse, among others. Guzman’s training shows in his eye for detail, especially in the perfectly shaped and hefty cubes of ahi (a good 1 inch on each side). Our only complaint: The shoyu poke seemed, to our palate, completely void of the namesake sauce (and none was given on the side). Still, the overall effect was so good we hardly missed it.
Also try: Fried-to-order crab cakes.
Visiting Tanioka’s feels a lot like being in a New York deli: The space is jam-packed with a huge variety of edibles, the line moves surprisingly quickly and when it your turn comes you’d better be ready to order. The ahi in the shoyu poke is inconsistently diced and a little heavy on the sauce, but its ultra-melty consistency more than makes up for it.
Also worth trying: The mint-green wasabi tako poke is a little unusual with its sweet-spicy-nutty flavors. But it’s also really good.
But what about the fish?
Sustainability-wise, tuna has taken quite a beating of late. First, there’s the concern over mercury, which accumulates in large predatory fish and can cause neurological damage to fetuses, and possibly adults. Beyond our own health, tuna themselves are also threatened. The world’s insatiable demand for tuna has started to outpace wild populations’ ability to reproduce, so much so that the bluefin species has been labeled an “Avoid” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other environmental groups. Further, tuna is typically fished using indiscriminate catch methods–that means in addition to tuna, each haul also brings in a significant quantity of other species, including sea turtles and sharks. These other species, called “bycatch,” often die onboard the boat before being tossed back into the ocean.
That’s a very broad explanation of the global state of affairs for tuna. Locally, the picture is significantly brighter. Yellowfin tuna (one of two species sold under the name ahi) populations are abundant and healthy; bigeye, the other species known as ahi, is not quite as abundant, but populations hover just below or at target levels. (Based on data from the NOAA website: [nmfs.noaa.gov]) Tuna that’s caught in Hawaiian waters is fished with hook and line, and the majority caught by longline fleets. According to the Hawaii Seafood Council, Hawaiian fisheries are closely managed through adherence to a number of international standards and guidelines, government monitoring and satellite tracking of fishing vessels.