North Shore Poke Co. Has a Poke-Man

We Mainlanders like to stereotype Hawaiians as obsessed with heavy meals such as plate lunches or loco moco, but the true religion is poke. A distant relative of Tahitian poisson cru and ika mata of the Cook Islands, poke is as indigenous to the Aloha State as the palm trees and the humidity. It's often just made of cubed ahi, sprinkled with sea salt, garnished with frilly seaweed called limu—a dish made by the people of Hawaii, for the people of Hawaii.

In nearly every supermarket from the sparsely populated island of Lanai to the dense tropical metropolis of Honolulu, poke can usually be found in the back of the store where you'd normally expect the butcher. A good grocer such as KTA often has at least a dozen varieties set in refrigerated bins and offered in tempting mounds. Some glisten with sesame oil, others miso and shoyu. A few variants involve octopus and squid. All are scooped into plastic tubs, priced by weight, and are eaten with little more than chopsticks and some steamed rice, often just outside at the curb or preferably, the beach.

So it's a sad thing to see poke being relegated here too often to those overpriced, cylindrical-mold sculpted appetizers at fancy restaurants. You'd think that with the ubiquity of plate lunch joints in OC, more than a few would offer it, but with only a few exceptions, most Hawaiian eateries on this side of the Pacific have completely shut out poke, leaving only the sushi bars to offer it in bowls. To my knowledge, before the recently opened North Shore Poke Company in Huntington Beach did so, no one in California has ever dedicated an entire restaurant to serving poke. So thank you, North Shore Poke Company. It's about damn time!

Despite being located one avenue shy of Main Street's foot traffic, North Shore is already doing steady business on what seems like ex-kama'aina word-of-mouth alone. Shawn Gole, who conceived of the concept with his father, Mark, is the chef, but his duties don't have so much to do with cooking as with mixing the poke together like a garde manger operating on overdrive.

At a cold station behind the cashier, he spoons out cubed raw ahi from a chilled trough and tosses it with sauces and vegetables as soon as he gets an order. He produces five distinct flavors and packs them up with rice in clamshell containers. This is poke as it should be—served as take-out or eaten in a sunny room with reggae in the background.

The Pipeline is the most basic—the entry level poke that's all about the soy sauce umami, the slight tartness of the ahi, and how the cool cubes slide down your throat with the ease of Jell-O. The one called Sunset burns with the suggestion of kimchi and a hotness that I believe comes from a generous dash of togarashi. The Haleiwa clears your sinuses with wasabi that seems to concentrate itself in the tangle of sliced onions. You can have it with rice, but I found it also works inside a corn tortilla to make the coldest, most refreshing fish taco you'll ever consume. But the Waimea—cubes of fish covered in a mixture that includes spicy mayo, oyster sauce and masago—is best stuffed into their poke-rittos, where a whole sheet of nori is wrapped around rice to form what's essentially a gigantic, oversized sushi hand roll as lengthy as a relay-race baton and as thick as your wrist.

A dollar more brings add-ons like macadamia nuts, avocado, masago, ginger, daikon, or ogo seaweed. The mango might be the best option to consider, never mind that I've never seen the fruit included in any pokes in Hawaii. With poke, it's just in the natural evolution of a dish that predates Captain Cook's arrival in 1778.

Chef Gole, who could be mistaken for a new-age luxe lonchero, adds a few more welcome mutations. Check out his sashimi sandwich. It's not so much a Hawaiian dish, but perhaps the thing to get besides the poke, built upon the soft pliancy of a La Brea Bakery ciabatta with sprouts, avocado, silken slices of salmon sashimi and a sugary papaya-seed dressing that enriches every bite. At the same time its tang invites you to take the next one.

However, full credit for the chocolate haupia pie goes to Gole's sister, Melissa, who improves upon an often-overlooked traditional Hawaiian dessert of coconut-milk gelatin, constructing it into a two-layered, crumbly crusted wedge. Its saltiness combines so well with the sweet fluff of chocolate mousse and the jiggly coldness of haupia that it's the worthy sibling and follow-up to her brother's main dish. Ms. Gole gives to her haupia what Shawn Gole gives to his poke: respect. Most importantly, they provide us with a dedicated mainland restaurant in which to enjoy them.

This review appeared in print as “Poke-Man: Shawn Gole's North Shore Poke Co. finally gives poke its full and undivided attention.”

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