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Sights and sounds from the 7th annual poke celebration in San Diego

Written by: Ivan Chung 8th Annual I Love Poke Fest in San Diego
Photographed By: Ron Pareja

The 7th Annual I Love Poke Fest in San Diego went swimmingly this week. Not only was it a giant exhibition of the magical food that originated from Hawaii, it was also a celebration of the Hawaiian culture and its values. To make things more interesting, a friendly competition was held for poke chefs to show off their talents and give a shot at creating their version of a perfect poke dish.

Before all of the epic festivities, Nino Camilo, the founder of Ono Yum and I Love Poke, brought us up to speed with all the changes of the event over the course of seven years and its gaining popularity. “There’s always a constant drive for us to make the festival better, ” said Nino. “ILP has been a sold out festival since the beginning. While it can’t really get bigger in size, it can definitely get better in quality.”

Being a first-timer at the festival, I totally agree with Nino, as ILP was grandeur in every aspect. Bali Hai Restaurant in Shelter Island was the perfect place for an event like this. It featured an outside area that oversees an amazing view of San Diego from the tip of Point Loma. Poke vendors were set up everywhere in that area, together with a stage for live music, other performances and the award ceremony. For those not fond of the wind, there was an inside area underneath the circle dome with more food and desserts. There was also a bar outside that served an amazing (and strong) Mai Tai.

This year’s ILP featured the best poke shops in San Diego, namely San Diego Poke Company, Zarlitos and Bali Hai’s own poke team. But to top if off, Poke Australia came all the way from the land down under to compete.

What makes the event so great is the meaning and mission behind it. “People look forward to the display of Hawaiian culture at ILP. Growing up as a Filipino kid around the Hawaiian culture, I know I can bring the importance of family into ILP, ” said Nino. “Everyone here is family, even the judges.”

Years ago, poke was a rarity in California and was most popular on the island. “To me, eating poke in Hawaii associates with the best time of my life, and eating it now brings back memory, ” Nino said. “I want everyone to be able to recreate that memory, and help them realize that everybody can open a poke shop in California. And that’s when this movement started. Los Angeles started about three years ago, then Orange County followed, and finally San Diego had a poke bloom this past year.”

With the immense popularity and wide variety of poke restaurants in California, chefs strive for creativity without losing authenticity. This is a part of the reason why in this year’s competition, chefs could have attended either the “Traditional” or the “Any Kine” category, and were judged based on the emphasis of authenticity and creativity. On top of that, the three main aspects judges looked at were presentation, flavor and quality.

To Nino, poke is all about the freshness. “It’s very important that the dish comes from the heart, ” Nino stated. “I’m very excited to see these experienced poke chefs go at it and try to replicate their memory along with their poke dish.”

After a night full of entertainment, joy and filled bellies, the winners were announced to conclude the celebration. The overall winning poke was received by Chef Austin Roberto and his crew from Sushi On A Roll (SOAR).

Huge shoutout to Ono Yum and these supporting vendors for putting together the most amazing experience ever. I Love Poke Fest is definitely making a name for themselves representing the Hawaiian culture and becoming a household name in San Diego for the future to come.