For the uninitiated, poke (which means “to cut” or “to slice” in Hawaiian) is most commonly a dish of raw, chopped fish and onions, seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil. It is not some overwrought bowl with extra toppings and kale, labeled as poké or poki on the menu at a bougie fast-casual outlet like you see on the Mainland. Though you’ll find all sorts of variations on the sauces and ingredients, ranging from cooked seafood like shrimp and clams to even non-seafood ingredients, such as beets and beef, there are really just three types of poke, usually made with ‘ahi, that locals love most. The first is shoyu, the aforementioned variety with soy sauce and sesame oil. You’ll also see limu or Hawaiian, made with limu (seaweed) and ‘inamona (roasted and crushed kukui, or candlenut). And finally there’s spicy, a creamy mayo-based variation.
In Hawai‘i, poke is most often eaten on its own as a snack, though serving it over rice, aka poke bowls, is also now popular. It’s a casual dish, so much a part of locals’ lives that it’s eaten everywhere — at bars, on the beach, on the couch — usually straight from plastic takeout containers. The best poke destinations in Honolulu prioritize fresh fish (versus tuna that’s been frozen or treated with carbon monoxide to preserve color). They tend to be unassuming and out of the way: supermarkets, convenience stores, hole-in-the-wall spots; then you know the establishment is spending its money on fish and not on high rent and useless decor. Across the board, for the best poke, fresh fish is the star.
Martha Cheng is the food editor at Honolulu Magazine, the author of The Poke Cookbook, and a writer for national publications.
Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.