Poké at Ono Seafood (Honolulu, HI)

Poké is ubiquitous in Hawaii. Virtually any restaurant serving island food will have it on the menu. It is typically made with raw yellowfin tuna (ahi poké). Combined with sea salt, soy sauce, sesame oil and limu (algae), it’s a distinctively Hawaiian creation. Variations include other seasonings and aromatics. While it has been a popular food staple in the island diet since the 1970s, it wasn’t until Sam Choy introduced it on his TV show and featured it in his cookbooks that poké became more widely known in the States. In the Seattle area, Choy has a food truck called Poké to the Max.

In 2010, I ate a very good version at Poké Stop (in Waipahu), which also included Maui sweet onions. The truth is that it’s hard not to have a decent poké anywhere in Hawaii since the ingredient that makes or breaks the recipe is the freshness of the tuna. And tuna right out of the sea is readily available. On our trip to Oahu last year, my wife and I tried in vain to find Ono Seafood that makes the best poké in Oahu, according to many. While it’s located on arguably the best restaurant avenue in all of Honolulu for local food (Kapahulu), others have had equal difficulty in spotting it, for it’s set back, almost obscured by a Shell gas station, on the bottom floor of an apartment building. But, my sister-in-law knew exactly where it was. While there are two picnic-style tables outside, most customers order takeout, which we did. Be warned that there are only a handful of parking spots in the lot. The rest have tow-away signs.

ono seafood

The inside is quite small but colorfully painted in turquoise. The menu and pictures are prominently posted on the wall. There are exactly eight styles to choose from, permutations of ahi or octopus (tako) and seasonings. The thing about Ono’s is that the poké is made to order, which means that there aren’t deli displays of their seafood already prepared in advance. What’s the big deal? Sea salt, a prominent seasoning in poké, will draw out moisture from seafood and toughen it. Looking over the menu, my wife and I decided on the shoyu ahi, simply prepared with tuna, soy sauce, green and white onions, kukui (candlenut), dried chile peppers and sesame oil. The accommodating server went so far as to omit the chile peppers for my wife. There is also a choice between white or brown rice, regular size or super bowl, and a choice of drink.

We ate our dinner in the condo where we were staying. Let me be quick to say that it was the best poké I’ve ever eaten (☆☆☆☆). The ahi melted in the mouth, buttery in texture and sweet. The other ingredients were added in perfect proportions, not too much soy sauce to make it too salty, not too many onions to make it too harsh and sulfurous, not too much chile to make it overly spicy, with just enough limu to provide crunch. My brother-in-law and nephew were so enamored of Ono’s poké that they had to pick some up en route to the airport to eat on the flight home. Now, that says something.

ono poke

Shoyu ahi (image from Yelp, submitted by Kelli L.)

Ono Seafood
747 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96816
(808) 732-4806

Aloha Spirit at Mr. Ed’s Bakery (Honomu, HI)

Some of the friendliest people we’ve ever met live on the Big Island. The islanders call it the Aloha Spirit, and maybe this explains it to some degree. I suspect there’s something more, a generosity of spirit, an openness to strangers that one rarely encounters when traveling. Maybe it’s the fact that Big Islanders live in paradise, unfettered by the stresses of civilization that characterize Honolulu, though I must say that even there the people are friendly enough.

On the Big Island, we never encountered a surly or impatient wait person. A smile always graced their faces and they always explained anything on the menu. If they were having a bad day, it never showed.

When we bought breakfast at Koji’s Bento Korner, which is takeout only, we needed to find a place to sit. While I waited for our orders, my wife went around the corner to Paul’s Place Cafe to buy coffee. She asked if it would be alright if we sat at the only table outside. Paul Cubio, the owner and chef, not only gladly gave his permission, he brought us napkins, served us water and asked if there was anything else we needed. I mean, all we bought was coffee. (BTW, this place consistently gets great reviews on all the food sites.)

Dino Morrow was our tour guide to Mauna Kea. Not only was he possibly the best guide we’ve ever had, a virtual fount of knowledge, but the most gracious of people, accommodating, garrulous, and open to any and all questions. You could argue that it’s the job of tour guides to be friendly, but this guy was the genuine article.

He told everyone about the Lili‛uokalani Birthday Celebration on the following day (Saturday) to be held at her namesake gardens in Hilo. He also showed us where to park if we were taking a car. When we got there the next morning, it wasn’t apparent exactly where we should park because the huge open space was shared with the fairground, which was hosting some kind of event. We asked a parking attendant. Though she didn’t know, she tried calling, then texting a friend who was already at the celebration—but no answer. Then one of the free shuttles pulled up. Did she tell us to go ask the driver? No, she ran over there herself and got the answer to our question. When my wife thanked her, the attendant gave her a big hug. Wow.

This long prologue leads up to the subject of my post. Honomu is a small town just outside Akaka Falls State Park. Mr. Ed’s Bakery not only makes baked items but sells purportedly the best homemade jams on the island. Dean Edmoundson makes the jams, preserves and butters himself from fruits from his own orchard and those dropped off by neighbors. These fruits include all the tropical ones grown on the island. His best-selling one is the low-sugar kind made from lilikoi.

He and his wife June were sitting at a table as we were tasting samples. They immediately struck up a conversation with us as if we’d known them for a while. Dean encouraged us to sample every one of their countless preserves. That would’ve taken a very long time. He explained that, in the early days, he had several chest freezers to preserve his fruit. Recently, he was able to get his hands on a recycled walk-in freezer from Safeway, now his pride and joy. He took us to the back of the shop to show us and even had us sample a poha berry (cape gooseberry).

mr ed preserves

Meeting people like these makes visiting other places worthwhile. The various attractions may very well be why many people go on vacation, but for us the people leave the most indelible impressions.