Much like my love of ceviche, when I went to Hawaii, one of my missions was to find the best poke in the islands. Poke (pronounced po-kay), is the quintessential Hawaiian Roadfood treat. Using local ingredients and made by “local boyz”, a good poke takes humble ingredients and makes a delicious bite of marine freshness. Poke is basically fresh fish marinated with seaweed, spices, onion, sesame oil, soy sauce and other items added. Roasted kukui nut, the Hawaiian candlenut, also adds crunchiness and flavor to the mix. Umeke’s, in the heart of Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, is a small place that produces fresh poke with big flavors.
Walking into Umeke’s, you have a counter for ordering with no seating, although there is umbrella tables outside. The poke and salads are sold by the pound in hand-packed containers, to take out for a “meal on the beach”. Most of the salads and pokes average $10.00 to $15.00 per pound and can be ordered any size you want. One of the most popular ways to eat the poke are the Poke Bombs, Umeke’s version of a popular treat consisting of poke topping an inari (bean curd) sushi wrapper first filled with sushi rice. Each flavor packet gives a delicious bite of fresh fish in an easy to hold package. Another popular way to enjoy the poke is in a nice large bowl filled with brown or white rice or even quinoa and then topped with an assortment of salads and poke.
The traditional ahi tuna poke was very fresh and flavorful, tender with just a little bite to it. The kimchee shrimp poke had a nice flavor, spicy and yet not overpowering. The shrimp were jumbo shrimp and blended with the Korean kimchee sauce perfectly. A poke made out of local ono fish was melt-in-your-mouth tender, with Umeke’s poke marinade bringing out the flavor of the fish. The lomi lomi salmon, an old variation on the marinated fish dish that is popular at luaus, had a nice texture to it, from fresh Hawaiian sweet onions that contrasted nicely with the Hawaiian sea salt used. A very unusual dish for those who only think of poke as fish is piupikaula, a poke made with beef that is reminiscent of beef jerky.
Nakoa Pabre, the founder and owner of Umeke’s, takes his fish seriously. He buys direct from the local fisherman, augmenting his standard fishes like ahi tuna with locally caught mahi, kampachi (a Hawaiian yellowtail) and a local Hawaiian snapper called opakapaka. The fish are bought whole and broken down at Umeke’s, with part of them going for the delicious poke and parts for “daily specials” such as a grilled yellowtail plate. Other cooked daily specials might include teriyaki beef or lau lau, a traditional dish wrapped in ti leaves and then baked in an oven.
Sides include a Ho’i’o Salad, made with the stems and leaves of a large Hawaiian fern. It is a local specialty that has a fresh, bright taste. Crab and Broccoli Salad give a nice combination of flavors with the different pokes. Also available are a Seaweed Salad, a nod from the Japanese culture that has influenced so much of the food in the Islands, a Kimchee Salad with marinated cucumbers and even poi.
Umeke’s is a one-block walk up from Kona’s waterfront and shops. After eating some delicious poke and other ono (delicious) Hawaiian treats there on the patio, it is easy to walk back down to the waterfront and enjoy the Hawaiian ocean, knowing that you have just had one of the most delicious meals to come fresh from the surf right at your feet.