By: Nicolas Boer
As a chef on Kauai, I would spend mornings filleting whole fish, including yellowfin tunas that outweighed me by 100 pounds. I always seemed to be racing to finish dinner prep, so more often than not, I had lunch on the fly: scraping chunks of ruby red fish from the skeleton, tossing them with Hawaiian salt and sesame oil, and eating it all straight out of the bowl. This is poke at its most bare-bones.
Traditional Hawaiian poke is slightly more involved, with the addition of minced green onions, shaved sweet onions, a little limu (seaweed), and soy sauce. This is what Roy Yamaguchi enjoyed during his childhood summer vacations on Maui. After Yamaguchi moved to the islands, he developed a chain of island restaurants (the first Roy’s opened in 1988), where he gave poke a refined twist.
A popular recipe called for Maui onions, chives, rayu (spicy sesame oil), soy sauce, seaweed, yuzu, and roasted inamona(kukui nuts). This was tossed with uniformly diced ahi and extra virgin olive oil, garnished with frisée and limu, and sprinkled with crispy garlic and shallots.
Upscale-style poke such as this arrived in the Bay Area in 2003, when the first Pacific Catch in San Francisco offered poke as both an appetizer and in a bowl over sushi rice—and became its top seller. The concept has been so successful that the seventh Pacific Catch opened in Dublin in 2016, and an eighth is slated to launch in Walnut Creek this spring. The Walnut Creek location will feature the most intriguing poke options yet, including a “taco” of fresh jicama shells filled with cubed kampachi (yellowtail), orange, pomegranate, yuzu, ginger, mint, micro greens, and crispy quinoa.
Happily, you needn’t go to a full-service restaurant—or Hawaii—to get great poke; the East Bay has seen an explosion of fast-casual poke spots recently. We sampled several and listed our three favorites below, all of which serve lunch and dinner daily.