Seattle’s (go)Poké Future Is Bright

Getting good poké in Seattle was like getting good ramen used to be, a challenge. Now, very good ramenya are popping up with increasing regularity. Anyone who’s had ahi poké in Hawaii might agree with me that in Seattle, it’s been a disappointment. The primary reason is the fish quality. There’s something about tuna freshly caught off Hawaiian shores that makes it almost impossible to make bad poké on the islands. I’ve had great eating experiences at Ono Seafood (Kaimuki), Hawaiian Style Cafe (Hilo), Me Bar-B-Q (Waikiki), Poké Stop (Waipahu). My sister-in-law even swears by poké sold by Foodland, a Hawaiian supermarket chain. And like ramen, it seems poké is experiencing exponential growth in the U.S.

Last December, brothers Bayley, Michael and Trinh Le opened goPoké in Seattle’s International District. They have island cred because they grew up in Hawaii, the father was a tuna fisherman and the mother responsible for selling the catch and who developed her own version of poké to sell. Even the children got involved in door-to-door sales. This is the time when other vendors are establishing their own ventures in Seattle, including Hawaiian celebrity chef Sam Choy with Poké to the Max (3 food trucks, 2 brick-and-mortars), his only restaurant in the U.S. outside of Hawaii.

The three brothers wound up in Seattle and decided after a time to start goPoké across the street from Hing Hay Park. They would draw on decades of collective experience. Automatic success was not assured, though opening day last December saw a line form around the block. But after Bayley Le’s KING 5 appearance in February on the New Day show, there was valuable media exposure. Did it make a difference? Maybe so, with help from word-of-mouth and social media, because goPoké is going gangbusters. The name itself seems intentionally or not a play on Pokémon Go.

Theirs is a great ahi poké, cut (cubed) in uniform bite-sized pieces, firm and smooth, dressed with the right balance of Hawaiian sea salt, limu, white onion, scallions, toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil and, above all, fresh. There is also a spicy aioli version, as well as an extra-spicy one, the latter of which would seem to mask (disrupt) straight poké’s delicate and natural flavors. In a gesture to Northwesterners, there are also three styles of salmon poké. An invention of goPoké’s own is the Combo Bowl in which three kinds of poké are combined with rice, edamame, krab (faux crab made from pollock) salad, seaweed salad, pickled ginger (gari, sushi ginger), cucumber sunomono, and two toppings (from among fried shallots, fried garlic, furikake, chopped macadamia nuts). Friend KirkJ (and his wife), who was with us, ordered one and enthused over the tako and salmon poké.


Aloha Combo Bowl (image posted on Yelp by Michelle C.)

The fun doesn’t stop with poké. I was personally excited about five—yes, five—menu items that I happen to love from Hawaii: Bubbies mochi ice creams, SPAM musubi, Kona Brewing Company beers, Hawaiian shave ice (with snow cap!) and Dole pineapple whip (which many of you know is a Disneyland staple). With enticements like these, do I need excuses to visit the International District more?

Passionfruit/mango shave ice

Passionfruit/mango shave ice (partially eaten)

Bubbies passionfruit, lychee and guava mochi ice creams

Bubbies passionfruit, lychee and guava mochi ice creams

Dole pineapple whip

Dole pineapple whip

625 S King St.
Seattle WA 98104

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

Poke Stop (Waipahu, HI)

Sweet onion ahi poke

Sweet onion ahi poke

The Waipahu Poke Stop is in the middle of an enormous shopping center, those maddening strip mall/village hybrids that meander over acres, making it almost impossible to find any particular store. What an odd place to set up shop for a chef who trained under Alan Wong, Emeril Lagasse and Sam Choy. But, it’s a seafood restaurant Elmer Guzman wanted, one where he could serve locals the freshest seafood available.

The poke is what caught the fancy of the locals. Depending on what’s fresh, you’re going to find a wide variety of poke, all of it displayed behind glass cases and all of it available for sampling. The menu lists the following: limu ahi, shoyu ahi, sweet onion ahi*, creamy ahi, blackened ahi, Kapakahi ahi and opihi, garlic edamame ahi, seafood wasabi ahi, sesame tako, kim chee tako, creamy tako, furikake salmon*, ginger scallion shrimp*, limu mussel, kim chee mussel, Inamona white crab, kim chee Kona crab, “Da Works” oio*, hamachi poke, and tofu poke. The asterisked ones are menu-listed as “must try” signature pokes. The price is $10.95/pound (hamachi and Kapakahi are $12.95).

We ordered the sweet onion ahi (top photo), crispy chicken chunks (third photo) and seared ahi bowl over furikake rice (second photo). The ahi was very fresh and sweet, lightly seasoned with salt and sesame oil, sprinkled with green onions and chile flakes. The onions were sharp and biting; Maui sweet onions in season would definitely improve things. The seared ahi was also nicely done. The chicken is prepared Korean-style. Chicken thigh nuggets are lightly battered and fried, then tossed with taegu sauce.

One dish I regret not having ordered were the eggplant fries. I kick myself for forgetting. This has been mentioned several times by internet posters as a “must try.” It’s served with remoulade.

While the poke is excellent, it might not be worth the trip out to Waipahu or Mililani Town just to try it. If, like us, you’re on your way to leeward Oahu (Hawaii’s Plantation Museum or Ka’ena Point), it’s worth a stop in Waipahu. For closer-in poke, the word is that Ono’s Seafood (not Ono’s Hawaiian, but across and up the street from it) in Kapahulu has an excellent version.

Poke Stop
94-050 Farrington Hwy # E4
Waipahu, HI 96797