Restaurant News & Reviews

Say hello to fresh, raw fish salad from Aloha Poke in Bellingham

Habanero limu ahi, left, and basil wasabi hamachi from Aloha Poke in Fairhaven.
Habanero limu ahi, left, and basil wasabi hamachi from Aloha Poke in Fairhaven. krelyea@bhamherald.com

Name: Aloha Poke.

Location: 1102 Harris Ave. in Bellingham’s Fairhaven district, in the spot once occupied by Papa’s Sweets and next to the Three French Hens boutique. 360-922-7494 and on Facebook. Open daily 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The history of ... Aloha Poke opened in July, bringing the fresh flavors of Hawaii to our corner of the Pacific Northwest. My taste buds are happy that owners David Jacobsen and Mark Ushijima did, because this casual eatery combines two of my favorite things: Asian flavors and raw fish.

Poke, pronounced “poe-kay,” is essentially small chunks of raw, seasone fish.

It’s a fish salad that has been called Hawaii’s king of food and its soul food.

Its creation reflects the native Hawaiian preference for raw fish combined with Asian influences, specifically Japanese, that in itself is a history of immigration and labor in the island state. More than 300,000 Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii from 1850 to 1920 as cheap labor for sugar plantations, according to Ronald Takaki’s book, “Strangers from a Different Shore.”

And those immigrants helped shape Hawaiian cuisine.

Food historian Rachel Laudan – in her book “The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage” – describes poke as a “down-home version of the elegant and restrained sashimi, also popular in the Islands. Sashimi must be cut into perfect, even slices to be acceptable. A little raggedness in the bits of poke is no matter.”

Sashimi, in this instance, is fresh fish that has been sliced thin. Eaten raw, it is a Japanese delicacy recognizable to sushi lovers.

Aloha Poke’s opening in Bellingham reflects poke’s growing popularity, which is spreading beyond Hawaii to the mainland. It generated some excitement on social media, so I stopped in recently.

Quick bites: At Aloha Poke, you can order a mini bowl of warmed rice for $1 or a regular bowl of rice for $1.50. That’s topped with poke, which is charged by weight.

I ordered a mini bowl of rice, which was warmed and dusted with what looked like furikake seasoning for a hint of savory seaweed flavor. For the poke, I selected a scoop of habanero limu ahi, for about $5, and a scoop of basil wasabi hamachi for about $5.25.

The hamachi’s buttery richness paired well with the chopped basil, which added a refreshing note. If you prefer a hint of spiciness, this is a good choice for you, because the Japanese horseradish didn’t have much of a presence.

My favorite was the ahi, thanks to the fiery habanero and the tiny fish roe that added little pops of briny flavors with each bite. Limu is a Hawaiian word for seaweed, and I can’t say that I could pick out its sea flavor from the others in the dish, but I did like the delicate crunch it imparted to the poke.

Both poke servings had chopped white and green onions in them along with a smattering of black and white sesame seeds. Both featured sesame, soy sauce and ginger flavors that complemented the fresh fish.

As I ate, a customer came in, telling the staff she was “super excited to get my poke on.” After eating here, I’m excited to come back.

You should know: Not sure what you want? That’s OK. The staff is happy to give you tastes of each offering and will patiently explain what you’re eating.

Other offerings: I plan to try the kimchi and sea asparagus dishes the next time around. And I’ll definitely have to stop in on the weekend, when the restaurant offers Spam musubi. The canned and pre-cooked meat is much maligned, but I grew up eating fried Spam in sandwiches or in fried rice in our Vietnamese-American household.

In Hawaii, Spam musubi is popular as a snack or lunch.

It is made of grilled Spam placed on top of a rectangle of rice, tied together with a strip of dried nori seaweed. It is said to be akin to the Japanese omusubi, which are rice balls.

Check before you go: Check Aloha Poke’s Facebook page before you go. Because the eatery brings fish from Hawaii, there are times it will run out of certain items.

Got suggestions for tasty tidbits in Whatcom County or an eatery known for a particular dish? Send them to Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, krelyea@bhamherald.com, @kierelyea

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