Sunday, April 19, 2015

I'll Have Some of Umekes' Poke, Mon

Fancy a sashimi salad?

Poke (pronounced POH-kay) is an Hawaiian word simply meaning cut, cubed or sliced, but it's come to refer to bite-size pieces of seasoned raw fish, the Hawaiian take on ceviche. Traditional poke contains reef fish seasoned with anything the native fisherman had handy. Sea salt, limu (seaweed), roasted ground candlenut (kukui), sesame oil, chopped chili peppers, and a dash of soy sauce came to be considered the classic components.

Today, the main ingredient is likely to be meltingly-tender, cubed raw ahi tuna (yellowfin), and contemporary seasonings include avocado aioli, seeds, Maui onions, and just about anything else, reflecting the marriage of many cultures in Hawai'i. The Japanese influence is particularly strong. Poke is often served with a scoop of rice. Now, it's just as often the main dish as it is a pupu (appetizer). As for other other "peasant fare" or street food, poke is a local staple that's entered the pantheon of gourmet cuisine.

When we stayed in downtown Kona, we were on the hunt for the best poke we could walk to from our Courtyard King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel. The renowned Poke Shack was our first quarry, but we found it was too far down Ali'i Drive, and a shirtless side-walk basket weaver (how could we go wrong there?) suggested that Umekes has the "best grind," the local term for food or to eat, and its owner was one of the founders of Da Poke Shack. "Umekes makes the best," he said. A quick smartphone review on TripAdvisor showed strong support for the advice of our local tipster.

Umekes is the two-time winner (2013, 2014) of Sam Choy’s Keauhou Poke Contest, which sounds like good qualifications. Choy is one of Hawaii's best known chefs, and every year his contest draws over 2000 entrants from mainland North America and across the Pacific. "Umeke" apparently means bowl in the Hawaiian language, so appropriately they serve bowls of poke (though we had trays).

This treat was so good we couldn't resist digging in before I could take a photograph.

There are other menu items that beckoned. I was especially tempted by mains like "Da Pipi Umeke (beef) my youngest son ordered for USD $8.99, but the rest of us were there for the poke. There are several varieties including shrimp, kim chee, tako (octopus), shoyu, traditional Hawaiian ("Da O.G."), and spicy. There is also a daily special. Our favorite was Da Avo Ahi, with the poke in a marinade of avocado aioli. Ahi poke prices fluctuate with the market, but our plates were about USD $10.50 in February, 2015. It's worth every penny; the fresh tuna melts in your mouth. If only I'd known about the award winning poke bombs, fresh ahi poke nested in little pockets of rice in a sushi cone.

Side choices include kim chee, ho'io (fern) salad, pipi kaula (Hawaiian-style beef jerky) poke, garlic-sesame edamame, and seaweed or macaroni salads. My family was particularly fond of the lomi-lomi salad, a diced tomato and salmon mixture that looks much like pico de gallo. My youngest, who claims not to be a fish-eater, said how much he liked the "salsa," and helped himself liberally from the plates of his brothers. White rice is served on the side with an optional dusting of dried seaweed and spices (furikake), and you can substitute brown rice or quinoa for a slight upcharge.

It was so good we ate at Umekes twice during our limited time in Kona, each time capped by an excellent shave ice from Scandi's (Scandinavian Shave Ice), on the corner of Ali'i Dr. and Likana Lane.

There are lots of recipes on the Internet should I ever wish to recapture a spark of our poke experience on Hawai'i, but if I'm ever back in Kona, you will find me with a bowl of Da Avo Ahi at Umekes.  I will always have fond thanks for that basket weaver who pointed me to poke paradise.

Umekes Kona is an easy walk from anywhere in the main business district of Kailua-Kona. It's on the end of a small strip mall, and there is outdoors seating at a handful of shaded picnic tables. You'll be eating outside, on the Big Island of Hawai'i. What other atmosphere could be better?