Notes from the 3rd Annual I Love Poke Festival | Bringing Hawaiian Culture to Sunny San Diego

May 31, 2012

We had the delightful opportunity to cover the 3rd annual I Love Poke Festival along the picturesque shores of Shelter Island at the Bali Hai restaurant. The event was a remarkable foodie festival highlighting Hawaiian cuisine and sharing Hawaii’s colorful culture with us “mainlanders,” including a competition amongst San Diego’s top chefs who were all vying to create the best poke dish in America’s Finest City.

For those of you not in the know, poke (pronounced "POH-keh") is a Hawaiian delicacy traditionally made with raw ahi tuna, cut into cubes and seasoned lightly to accentuate the natural flavors of the fish. You should be able to find a version of the dish in a large majority of San Diego restaurants.   

The poke competition took place under the large outdoor tent, with a breathtaking view overlooking the San Diego bay. Chefs prepared their poke dishes alongside one another, and a center stage provided live entertainment from emcees Chef Sumo and Tati from Jammin Z90 radio, and two musical acts: Tini Grey and Anuhea.

Attendees were able to sample all competing chefs’ poke, plus complimentary tastes from San Diego-based restaurants and food vendors. Unlike many food festivals, I Love Poke did not offer any complimentary alcohol beverages, but Bali Hai set up cash bars around the festival which featured their famous Mai Tai’s for the packed house.  

Malarkey straight chillin'
Judging the competition were Top Chef star Brian Malarkey, Anuhea, a contemporary Hawaiian singer and celebrity, Surf Magazine Editor-in-Chief’s Chris Cote and nine others. Michael Hauser’s top bid of $620 won him the coveted guest judge spot between Brian Malarkey and Anuhea. All proceeds from the guest judge auction benefitted the Kona-California Scholarship.

The 500 available tickets sold out online the day prior to the festival, leaving no tickets available at the door. Attendees lined up approximately a half hour before doors opened at 6:00 p.m. while competing chefs and participating restaurants put the final touches on their poke and island-inspired dishes.

The I Love Poke Festival produced 6 placing restaurants and chefs from its competition to create the best poke dish in the city. This poke competition included two categories: traditional (use of tuna required), and “any kine” (chef’s freedom to experiment). The results are as follows:

1st: Primo Beer (Chef James Harris)
2nd: Hapa J’s Kitchen Bar Lounge (Chef Justin Shea)
3rd: Peohe’s (Chef David Bland)

Any Kine:
1st: Gaijin Noodle + Sake House (Chef Antonio Friscia)
2nd: Hapa J’s Kitchen Bar Lounge (Chef Justin Shea)
3rd: Peohe’s (Chef David Bland)

Gaijin's poke offering
Chef James Harris, sponsored by Primo Beer and 370 Common Kitchen + Drink, produced a traditional ahi poke dish including macadamia nuts, sesame oil, Hawaiian salt and taro chips. Chef Antonio Friscia of Gaijin Noodle + Sake House prepared a dish consisting of local yellowtail, bay scallops, and octopus with preserved chili yuzu, uni, and micro shiso atop a sweet potato chip.

While we concur with the judges to a degree, of the entries sampled, our personal favorites were the curry yogurt ahi with jicama from Chef Simon Dolinky of Saltbox and Peohe’s Lomi Lomi Taco with Tasmanian salmon, watermelon, cilantro, red onions, cucumber and tobiko roe.

The I Love Poke Festival was founded by Nino Camilo, creator of, a website serving to inform locals about authentic Hawaiian dining, activities and other opportunities in San Diego. Feel free to connect to on Facebook and Twitter.

We hope that the I Love Poke festival returns to San Diego for many years to come. Mahalo, and we hope to see you all next year!!