Poke, Man: Raw fish research on my offseason Trail of Tuna
A dear longtime friend of mine moved herself and her family to Hawaii about 18 months ago, for a pandemic-inspired change of scenery. Never one to pass on the opportunity to visit friends of 25-plus years offering a free place to stay, I made the, ahem, incredibly difficult decision to trek out to Kauai during our spring offseason to visit Jill, Vince and their son, Lorenzo.
If you read my previous month’s column, you have by now learned that my travel always includes a food-related element (i.e. constantly stuffing my face for as many days as I’m away). This trip would be no different.
Suddenly trendy and popping up in cities on the mainland as a popular fast casual option, I’ve been craving tuna poke and couldn’t think of a better place to try all the marinated ahi I could get my hands on. I’ve made my own at home a few times before, with fairly satisfying results, but I figured nothing would beat a beachfront scoop of raw fish over rice.
Kauai did not disappoint.
With the help of my friends-turned-locals, I scoped three different spots which I planned to hit for lunch between beaches over three consecutive weekdays, mostly to entertain myself solo while they worked. My very own Trail of Tuna. These are not intended to be restaurant reviews, but to give you a taste — hardy, har har — of my travels.
My first full day in town, the four of us, plus a playmate in tow for 10-year-old Zo, trekked from their place on the south side of the island up north to Hanalei, for a late lunch pre-beach pit stop at Hanalei Poke, “as featured on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.'” Any feelings you might have about Guy Fieri aside, this sidewalk order-at-the-window spot (technically a food truck in a shopping center) seemed popular with just as many locals as tourists. All half-pound bowls come served over rice or greens with toppings like onion, seaweed and tobiko and you can customize them with spicy mayo, mango, cilantro or even watermelon. I kept it simple, ordering mine with sesame shoyu, furikake and avocado. Full and fueled, we hit the beach for some cornhole and gratuitous photo-taking.
But I wasn’t done yet!
The next day I was on my own, and decided to explore the west side of the island. I knew I needed a vacation, I just didn’t realize how badly I needed a vacation until I was alone, sitting in a Tommy Bahama striped chair, staring out at the ocean. No book, no talking, no music, just transfixed by the sound of the waves and the feeling of squeezing warm, nearly golden-hued sand between my toes.
I could have stayed like that all day, but I realized after about four hours that I was hungry, and the quest for poke waits for no beachgoer.
On a hot tip, I headed to Hanapepe — an historic, unincorporated community in Kauai County — to visit Japanese Grandma’s Café, which is actually housed in a small boutique. I walked inside, clearly confused. The owner asked if I was there for lunch, then promptly escorted me down a long hallway to a beautiful, enormous, pergola-covered patio, which functions as the bulk of the restaurant’s seating area. I ordered an obnoxious amount of sushi and the House Poke Bowl (add avocado). The ruby-red, shimmering cuts of tuna were the perfect post-beach, pre-shop-for-gifts-back-home nosh. Definitely my best meal of the week.
Day Three was a bit rainy so my beach time was cut short. I headed to Warehouse 3540, a “creative community marketplace” in Kalaheo. The warehouse is a converted factory building full of locally-owned small businesses, with several food trucks parked out front. I ordered a couple of things from Kauai Poke Co., including the excellent shrimp tempura appetizer. I was a little riced out by my third day of poke bowls, so I switched it up with the daily special “KPC Nachos,” which placed their “Plantation Poke”-style ahi and other toppings, like crispy onions, over a bed of fried wonton chips instead of rice.
At this point I felt totally satisfied by my ahi adventure (and absolutely stuffed to the gills). While not entirely ready to return to the mainland, I was armed with a bag of macadamia nuts from the Big Save, and inspired to continue that island spirit in my mountain kitchen.
And you can make poke at home, too, I promise. This recipe (I got it online several years ago from allrecipes.com) is incredibly simple and easy to make. There’s really nothing more complicated than assembly. The key is to get the freshest sashimi-grade fish you can find.
2 pounds fresh tuna steaks, ¼ inch cubed**
1C soy sauce
¾C chopped green onions
2T sesame oil
2T finely chopped macadamia nuts
1T toasted sesame seeds
1T crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
Place tuna in a medium non-reactive bowl. Add soy sauce, green onions, sesame oil, sesame seeds, macadamia nuts, and red pepper flakes; mix well. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours before serving.**
*This makes an obscene amount of poke, so either have a party or cut the recipe in half.
**The steaks are much easier to dice when chilled; pop them in the freezer for about two minutes, just before cubing.
While I was on Kauai, I noticed the recipe above represents the basics. You could also add avocado, thinly sliced Maui onions, or even bean sprouts or tobiko. I have served this basic mix as part of a seafood feast appetizer for my family alongside taro root chips for scooping. For myself, I serve it over cooked rice, and I’ve also spooned it into warm tortillas with sriracha crema on top as mini-tacos. Give it a try, make yourself a Mai Tai and pretend you’re on island time (especially satisfying during that last, painful snowfall in early June). Aloha!
Katherine Roberts is a mid-Valley based writer and marketing professional who (plot twist!) just quit her full-time job to found her own marketing and communications agency, like a freakin’ boss. Check it out at https://www.caringtoncreative.com
The first time I saw “Mississippi Grind,” it was my freshman year at NYU and I had convinced this kid Ethan to come with me. He was, and still is, the smartest person I know when it comes to movies.