I Love POH-kay, San Diego!

By:  Sheen Fischer

Friends being what they are, (apparently most of mine are degenerates in some fashion), it was only a matter of moments after posting a teaser on Facebook that a friend pointed out that the I Love Poke Festival, when “Poke” is not properly designated with an accent mark of some sort, could take on a whole different meaning and attract a whole different demographic than might be intended.  Thanks for that, Nicole.

Poke Fish 101

Traditional Hawaiian poke is a tuna salad, served raw, similar to sashimi, but cubed and mixed with a combination of sea salt, sesame oil and other herbs and spices.  There are no two recipes that are alike as evidenced by the plethora of offerings at I Love Poke, San Diego, 2015.

Neeno Camillo

Nino “Neens” Camillo, may be the closest thing to a rock star food promoter that San Diego has.  In addition to his food blog, Ono Yum, and the I Love Poke Fest in San Diego that Neens has hosted the past 6 years, he also has a Poke fest in Orange County as well as the North Eats festival held annually in Carlsbad.  When he shoots out a text or a tweet, chefs come running to be a part of his always sold out events.  As for me in this picture, I started out with a smile.  But, then, Neens’ bad-assedness wafted over me and I decided not to ruin the moment…

Big Eye Tuna SOAR

The festival was about Poke, in many of its various iterations, but it was also a celebration of sharing the best parts of life – friends, family and food.  Here, Sushi on a Roll is sharing fresh, scraped off the bone Big Eye Tuna rib meat.

Loa Greyson

The band, Loa Greyson, had people tapping their toes, singing along and dancing in the aisles.  Aside from lead singer Tini Grey having the smoothest, most velvety voice this side of the Pacific, he is also married to a former Ms. America.  How’s that for chops?

Daniel Pundik Paul Rinaudo Spike Africa

Oceanside’s own Daniel Pundik, executive chef of Local Taphouse and Kitchen, was on hand to help out his buddy Paul Rinaudo, executive chef of Spike Africa.  No matter how talented you are or how much prep you put into it, I cannot believe that there is anything easy about serving a sold out crowd of 800 people, most of whom didn’t eat all day in preparation for gorging on the best fish in San Diego.  This is the only three seconds these two were not in constant motion all evening.


San Diego’s best known and…just, best…burger joint was on hand for the festivities.  They brought no fish.  But, by the end of the night, these juice filled mini burgers topped with perfect amount of pickle, mustard, onions and pastrami served on sweet Hawaiian bread were literally being carried off a tray at a time by festival goers that were kind enough to wait for everyone else to eat before going in for seconds, thirds and fourths.  If these aren’t on the menu at Hodad’s, they should be.  These are what White Castle likes to think they are and should be ordered by the twelve pack.

Surfside Chef Billy

During the course of trying to take this picture, Surfside Cuisine’s executive chef, Billy Butter, must have re-plated and removed and re-plated and removed his poke offering four times.  Here, it is removed.  But, he finally got it right, judging by his third place finish.

James Montejano

Executive chef, James Montejano, of La Jolla’s La Valencia, (why am I bothering with an introduction here – is there anyone that doesn’t know this guy?) came out swinging in his first year competing in the Poke Fest.  His offering had a unique Latin inspired flavor, consisting of a handmade rub containing chili powder, Togarashi, chocolate, wasabi and some other “I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you” ingredients.

Kurt Metzger 4140Last year’s winner, Kurt Metzger, executive chef of Kitchen 4140 pulled out all the stops in an attempt to repeat.  His overnighted from Japan Yuzu flavored his poke dish with a beautiful, light, citrusy tone and the coconut shards toasted with vanilla bean added for texture and flavor were nothing short of fabulous.

Tako Terrine

Bali Hai represented themselves beautifully as the host of the event with this Tako (Octopus) Terrine offering – a sliver of gelatinous, suction cup filled goodness.


What would any kind of festival centered around food of the Pacific be without the token display of Spam?  This stuff, when properly pan fried, is like Hawaiian bacon.

Keoni Simmons Sushi on a Roll

Chef Keoni Simmons came with an axe to grind this year, having finished runner up in last year’s event.  He left with an axe to grind, finishing runner up again.  Riotous shouts of “the fix is in!” rocked the house when results were announced.  (Okay, a single riotous shout was barely heard above the clamor, and it was Keoni…)

Kiluea Fish Market

How ‘bout a shout out to the crew from Kilauea Fish Market who flew in from Hawaii for the event.  They brought their tuna with them in a carry on…yeah, they said that with a perfectly straight face.  I get it – food costs being what they are, who can afford $75 to check in a tuna these days when it can clearly ride free in the overhead bin?  They did, however, check their surfboards…

Tommy Birthday

It could be anything to do with fish in this town and if it were happening on this guy’s birthday, inevitably he was going to be on stage blowing out a candle in front of 800 of his closest friends.  Happy Birthday, Tommy Gomes, Catalina Offshore’s trusted fishmonger!

Judges Table

A couple of years ago, I judged at a small food event with eight competitors.  I barely made it through that without having to taste my food coming and going.  How this panel managed with over 30 restaurants in attendance boggles the mind.


And the Winners are…

…pretty much everyone who attended.  The crowd was excited and voracious, yet calm, friendly, inviting and discriminating. The food was fresh, plentiful, exciting and unique.  The chefs and their staffs were accessible, fired up, in full competition mode.  The drink lines moved smoothly, with nary a flying elbow or knee present.

And, amongst the superstars and heavy hitters that were all in it to win it, a small family run Filipino restaurant from National City, a last minute, reluctant entry that was there to support their friend, took down honors.  Congrats to Zarlito’s – Champions of the World!  Cheers, my friends!

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