It was 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday. The young owner of Poke Etc. had just barely finished his lunch. But his break was short-lived. As new customers came through the door, he chirped, “First time here? Have you tried poke before? Let me give you some samples!”
He then walked behind the counter and proceeded to offer each person in the group–a mom, a dad and two daughters–morsels from the poke trays behind a refrigerated glass case. There was about half a dozen flavors available, and the family tasted all of them, toothpick after toothpick. After that came a twentysomething couple that was also offered samples.
“How did you find out about us?” the young owner asked. Good, old-fashioned word of mouth.
Next came a burly guy in a faded Waimea High School T-shirt. The ex-pat kama'aina knew what poke was, but he still gladly taste-tested a few flavors. In those 30 minutes that afternoon, Poke Etc.'s bossman gave away what I would guess to be at least 10 bucks' worth of his precious foodstuff.
This is poke, the Hawaiian delicacy that has come of age recently in OC thanks to the success of purveyors such as Pokinometry in Anaheim, North Shore Poke Co. and others. But how Poke Etc. is offering it–displayed and sold for $13.50 per pound or over warm rice as poke bowls–might be the truest incarnation of poke Southern California has seen yet. In Hawaii, these raw cubes of marinated ahi tuna aren't usually made-to-order, but rather offered like this, in refrigerated buckets often next to a supermarket's butcher section. And samples by toothpick are obligatory.
But the truth is Poke Etc. needn't offer any free tastes. Every customer who came didn't just amble in there by accident. They wanted poke and sought out the place. That afternoon, I overheard that at least one couple drove to this Long Beach hole-in-the-wall eatery from Lake Forest. And there was the fact that Poke Etc. is so new the landlord hasn't yet changed the marquee outside (it still reads “Tony's Barbecue”). Yet the poke-famished still came.
And so did I. In the span of a few weeks, I trekked there at least three times. The first trip, I opted for the spicy mayo poke over rice–cubes of raw tuna covered in a Sriracha-tinted pink creaminess and freckled with tobiko, sliced onions and scallions. After I licked its clamshell container clean, I bought a half-pound of the limu poke, the most basic flavor, with sea salt, the frilly seaweed from which it takes its name and onions. Though it was slicked in oil (perhaps to keep the cubes from drying out), it possessed a flavor that reminded me how long it's been since I've gone to the islands.
The second trip, I had even more poke: the kimchee-flavored one that owed its redness and sweetness to gochujang, plus the Basic Spicy, which was covered in togarashi, the Japanese pepper powder. But this time, I had them as an included side in the combo plates–not that the combo plates needed anything extra.
These were gigantic portions of food in and of themselves, enough protein and starch in the rice and mayo-rich mac salad to make sumo wrestlers of anyone who can consume it in one sitting. The Island Bento consisted of spears of sauce-glazed teriyaki chicken and a crispy, greaseless plank of panko-breaded pork cutlet zigzagged in its own tonkatsu sauce.
But perhaps the best thing Poke Etc. makes besides the poke was the lau lau, hunks of pork steamed with taro leaves inside a banana leaf, and the kalua pork, shreds of slow-roasted pig as smoky as they were moist.
That the young owner and his business partner are both Filipinos might explain their deftness with pork and that their gisantes–essentially a tomato-based Filipino dry pork stew with peas that's popular in Hawaii–is excellent. But they also do a great Japanese curry that puts a new dimension to the tonkatsu. And then there's the oka poke, which is closer to Tahitian poisson cru and the only poke not displayed with the rest since it's made with coconut milk and thus must be kept at cooler temps to prevent spoilage. Poke Etc. even offers tako, which was what the ex-pat kama'aina ended up ordering–tender, boiled pieces of octopus that work best with the Fresh Ginger marinade.
And for those who think Long Beach is still too far, Poke Etc. will soon open a shop in OC, taking over a Filipino turo-turo joint in Lake Forest. The free samples will still, of course, be obligatory.
Poke Etc., 2292 E. Carson St., Long Beach, (562) 988-8488; pokeetc.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Poke, $13.50 per pound; meal for two, $10-$20, food only. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.