May 20 2016 04:08 PM

Raw fish salads are popping up more in San Diego

I Love Poke Festival
Photo by Ron Pareja

If you poked around San Diego raw bars over the last decade, you might have noticed a greater presence of poke, that wonderful raw salad consisting of cubed fish, sea salt, onions, shoyu, sesame oil and seaweed.

San Diego foodies have started appreciating the bounty of seafood available just off the coast, and poke—fresh poke—is one of the best ways to enjoy it.

One guy who deserves credit for raising interest in this Hawaiian dish is Nino Camilo, the creator of the popular I Love Poke Festival (May 24), which regularly attracts around 800 people.

Back in 2008, when Camilo started a Hawaiian food blog called, he had a hard time finding good poke.

"I would drive all over LA, OC and SD eating plate lunches, musubi, snapping photos, the whole bit," he says. "There was very little poke being served, and poke is what everyone wanted."

Camilo saw a need that could be met.

"I guess this is where that 'light bulb' moment happened," he says. "I was like, 'I'm not crazy enough to open up a restaurant, but I will put on a good poke party!'"

Since Camilo started the poke party, poke has poked its way onto local menus, according to Tommy Gomes, the fishmonger for Catalina Offshore Products, which is supplying 400-500 pounds of seafood for the event.

"We've definitely seen an increase in requests for poke grade fish, and more chefs are adding fresh ceviche to their menus too," Gomes says.

Some people might lump poke in with ceviche, but there are major differences.

"Poke is raw, ceviche is cooked in the acids of citrus," Camilo says.

Gomes adds: "For poke, you need a cut of high grade, super fresh fish like bigeye and yellowfin with the bloodline out and the skin off. For ceviche, you want a fresh white meat fish with a semi-firm texture. Something like rock cod, halibut or kingklip."

In the last couple of years, a lot of poke places have popped up, including Poke Go (3614 5th Ave.), Poke UTC (8895 Towne Centre Drive) and San Diego Poke Company (10387 Friars Road).

SDPC owner Yohei Umezu thinks poke fits a San Diego lifestyle for both culinary and cultural reasons.

"Poke is quickly becoming very popular in San Diego," he says. "Historically, [the city] has deep ties to the tuna fishing industry, so it almost seems natural that would lead to San Diego-style poke becoming a staple of our cuisine," he says.

Keoni Simmons, head chef at Hollywood Casino Jamul (14145 Campo Road, Jamul), shares that dream—with a couple of caveats.

"Some of the people are making mediocre versions of it," he says. "If we become the poke capital, I'm cool with that, but I want San Diego to be known for good poke."


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