Perks of the job: the awesome individuals I meet as I write my column features. Steven Ono, the owner of Ono Poke located at 10016 Edmonds Way, Ste. E, in Edmonds, is no exception.
Let me start off with just how exceptional. His commitment to authentic Hawaiian poke is challenged by logistics — the physical location of his restaurant vs. availability of the fresh tuna needed make poke.
A former marketing professional for brands like Tommy Bahama, he cashed in all his chips to pursue this desire; to share a little bit of Hawaii with anyone who walks into this shop called Ono Poke.
We sit in his restaurant on a Monday morning. Ono Poke opened only a few days before. And today he is closed.
Planning. He shook his head. “It’s been crazy. The first day we sold out of 80 pounds of tuna, and 40 pounds of salmon. Second day we went through 100 pounds of the tuna. I am so far ahead of my projections that I sold out of product, by 2:30 on Sunday.”
Who knew there were so many people in Edmonds, not just Hawaiian expats, but many people, who love good, fresh, tuna poke?
Supplier, Pacific Seafood, “has done a stellar job of keeping me supplied,” he says. As he speaks, his salesperson bustles in and out the back door with boxes of fresh fish. As soon as we are done visiting, he will be up to his elbows in fish, prepped and in the case for customers who crave poke on Tuesday morning.
Main tuna species used are yellow fin, big eye, albacore and bonito. Other popular items include salmon, tako, squid, crab, shrimp and tofu. If you like raw fish or sushi, it’s a good bet you’ll like poke.
First of all, the name Poke: It is pronounced Poh-Kay. Translated from Hawaiian, it means to cut into cubes. Poke began when fishermen seasoned cutoffs to eat after processing the fish. It’s the most popular pupu (snack) after work, during games or hanging out with friends.
Steven Ono, owner of Ono Poke was born and raised in Kahalu’u, Oahu. A taste for fresh Poke developed via his Uncle Kenny’s fishing boat.
“I grew up as a water boy – fishing, surfing and diving every chance I got,” he says. Ono is proud of his taste buds and extensive use of same as he travels to experience local cuisine.
“I was, and continue to be, a foodie even before it became a thing. I know all the best places to eat… ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you!”
After moving to Seattle, Ono craved good authentic poke. His uncle fished and that fresh, just-off-the-boat fish is his taste memory/gold standard. “I had to open my own place!” he says.
He has nostalgic ties to his roots in Hawaii. The fixtures, as well as wall photos of beautiful Hawaiian women — taken by famous island photographer Kim Taylor Reese and framed in koa wood — create an island vibe. Ono says this paints a picture of home, the importance of family in his life. “Come to my place for a visit and enjoy fresh fish, okay?” He wants to be an “addition to the community, not a distraction.”
Fresh fish is showcased at the front of the shop. Cubes glisten in the case. Ono Poke has the best on all ingredients- Sustainable fish, fresh and never frozen. All produce is organic too.
Grindz are the usual way to order. Here are choices: Traditional, Ahi Limu, Spicy Ahi, Shoyu Salmon, Lomi Salmon, Tako Limu, Tako Kimchi, Vegan Tofu
Poke Bowls –Small, Regular or Large, these come with sushi rice, salad or both. Salad is made of MSG-free seaweed.
Specialty bowls, party trays, Hawaiian Sun Juices and iced tea are also on the menu.
He grimaces and waves at another person who peers in the front window, then step backs and reads the hand-written paper sign that says, “Sorry, sold out of fish.”
It’s painful, I can tell. He dislikes turning away a single customer. It’s not so much about the money, but more about not having enough products to share with all those who desire the familiar tastes.
The practical side says: Of course he has to make money, to keep current with invoices for product — a boatload of seafood, dished up into containers with rice and seaweed served to customers in the last three days.
Ono points to several rows of Post-It notes attached to the wall. “This is called lokahi, Hawaiian for balance in life,” he says. His goal is to fill up this wall with an island version of Pay It Forward.
A modest guy, he says it was a concept seen on a trip to New York City. Pizza joint patrons could purchase a slice of pie for themselves and pay for a second piece of pizza. A paper triangle, fixed to the wall, could be redeemed by an unfortunate soul who might have left their wallet at home, or was short in their paycheck that week.
All of this goodwill, the desire to share the best, stay true to his brand and not compromise on quality, is tied up in a little space, on the corner of Westgate in Edmonds.
Ono says “Come by, eat some poke and talk story.”
P.S. Ono notes that fans of Ono Poke were so anxious for the restaurant to open, a second unofficial Facebook page was created. But here is the real one: www.facebook.com/eatonopoke/
— By Kathy Passage