There was a moment or two in the last year that I wondered if I would ever write this article about I Love Poke, based on last year’s event, in preparation for this year’s event (’cause no one likes hearing about a food event they just missed). In fact, a few months ago, I asked Nino “Neens” Camilo, founder of Onoyum and I Love Poke festivals in San Diego, Orange County and San Francisco, if he was worried about the proliferation of new poke restaurants affecting attendance at his events. I mean, the dish is on the verge of becoming commoditized to the point that all of the uniquity is being rubbed right off, right? I don’t remember Neens’ exact answer, but, he was the farthest thing from concerned.
Now, in retrospect, and the closer we get to this year’s I Love Poke event, I’m convinced it was a stupid question.
If you’re a foodie, at some point in the past annum, you’ve heard about or been witness to the nationwide poke movement, cleverly disguised as an ill-conceived mandate to put a poke shop on every street corner in America. It was this trend that made me wonder out loud about the future success of Onoyum’s I Love Poke event and whether it could sustain itself in the face of an overwhelming onslaught of Poke showing up en masse, ummm…well, everywhere.
Then, it dawned on me. Poke, for most mainlanders, is not a staple. We don’t think of it as “lunch,” or even seek it out as a snack. It certainly doesn’t fall into date night territory. In fact, in an informal poll of Food Fanatics and writers at a recent meetup, I couldn’t find one person who had made a special trip out specifically to eat at a new Poke establishment. For many of us that didn’t grow up in the Islands eating Poke, our experiences eating it are stored in a place of reverence, evoking memories of its enjoyment in a better place, at a better time, often in the presence of the family that made it following a generations old recipe.
By and large, for those of us with that level of appreciation for Poke, we expect a much different experience than having one of 41 flavors scooped out of a multi-gallon tin of bulk made…
Wait. I can’t even.
Then, there’s I Love Poke, San Diego’s annual celebration of the Hawaiian dish, known in its traditional iteration as cubes of raw tuna marinated in sesame oil and a surprisingly compact selection and combination of ingredients, aromatics and spices. Heading into our family’s third year of attendance, it shouldn’t be such a shocker when the kids actually schedule the night off of work and school months in advance to attend with us, because it’s exactly the atmosphere and spirit of Ohana that we raised them with that made us fall in love with I Love Poke in the first place. For us, as one of a couple handfuls of food events I might attend all year, I Love Poke holds the allure, excitement and charm of attending a long awaited family reunion.
Which is also why you may not have heard I Love Poke until now. It’s not that we who have attended don’t want you to come. I guess we kinda figure that all the right people already know about it, and, since it sells out every year, there’s not much point of getting your hopes up.
Admittedly, I haven’t tried any of the overabundance of new Poke places in town. But, that’s the thing with Poke. I’m protective of what the thought of if does for me and I don’t want to take any chances of corrupting the experience.
I Love Poke is the only place in San Diego for me that captures the essence of the Poke experience and activates the correct sequence of warm fuzzies. In fact, the proportion of new friends made in my life over meals full of raw fish is highly disproportionate to those made over, let’s say…a hamburger. Maybe it’s because places like sushi bars and events like I Love Poke are set up to encourage that type of interaction, shoulder to shoulder, intimate eating, sharing and conversing, with those others that enjoy the saline, herbaceous simplicity of the dish.
Maybe it’s because we who delve into the world of the uncooked recognize kindred souls in those that belly up next to and around us to partake of the orderly, almost religious, quietly mysterious experience that preparing, serving and consuming raw seafood must, by necessity, be.
When you do… I mean, read this or otherwise hear about I Love Poke in time to get a couple of the few remaining tickets this year, here are a few fun facts to know:
There’s a serenity to the I Love Poke event. The line starts early and you’re gonna want to make sure you’ve bought your tickets in advance. The event sells out every year and even knowing somebody won’t get you in once it’s sold out. Even so, there’s not a ton of jostling, hustling or bustling in and around the event. It’s got that laid back island vibe and assuredness that comes with knowing there’s more than enough of everything to go around – food, drink, music, laughter, conversation, hugs…you know, the little things in life.
And, likely, you’re going to know or have heard of a lot of the people here. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of local chefs, vendors and establishments that show up to show off…their Poke, that is.
There’s also a competition, complete with a panel of judges. That’s mostly at the behest of the chefs that attend. ‘Cause, you know, chefs…they have nothing better to do with their leisure-filled 9-5 lives, so why not throw a little friendly competition in with the pressure of feeding hundreds of hungry Poke fanatics.
The venue, outdoors, overlooking the harbor at Bali Hai is spacious, with plenty of room to stroll, a full bar and a live band. You’ll appreciate the fact that its not filled to the point of overflowing. The event is not about how many tickets can be sold, but how many people can comfortably be invited to appreciate the best of its kind specialty cuisine on the Left Coast, and, arguably, anyplace except Hawaii. You’ll find yourself looping the “circuit” multiple times, glass of wine or beer in hand, standing in front of the band for a minute, sitting for a second, working your way back to your favorites, talking to the Chefs and and making new friends. And, there may not be a better place in San Diego to do so, overlooking the harbor with some of the best people in San Diego, all with an appreciation for the some of the same things as you.
There was something else I was supposed to be talking about… Oh, yeah. Last year’s event. That’s old news. Get your tickets for this year’s. There are a few left and they’re going fast. See you there and, Cheers, my friends!
May 23, 2017