Baltimore gains Hawaiian eateries as poke trend takes hold

Poke (pronounced POH-keh), has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, driving an overall boom in Hawaiian restaurants on the mainland.

On opening night at R. House, Remington's new food hall, an enthusiastic crowd queued up in front of Hilo Poke & Sushi, ready to dive into bowls and burritos filled with chopped raw fish doused in savory marinade.

That Hawaiian staple, Poke (pronounced POH-keh), has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, driving an overall boom in Hawaiian restaurants on the mainland. Data from Foursquare check-in apps revealed that the number of Hawaiian restaurants in the U.S. almost doubled between 2014 and mid-2016.


Even in Maryland, where people of Hawaiian descent make up less than 1 percent of the population, Hawaiian cuisine is gaining traction through new concepts like Hilo and Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz, which opened in Fallston in November.

The owners of Hilo (pronounced HEE-lo), billed as Baltimore's first "official" poke bar, developed a taste for their main dish during visits with relatives in California.

"We've tried a lot of poke there," said owner Nuch Teng, explaining that she and her partners — sister Nat Teng and friend Na Tirasuth — love the dish for its appealing flavors, freshness and healthy profile. On the West Coast, poke was easy to find.

Back in Baltimore, where they also own Mount Vernon's Thai Landing, they were frustrated at the need to drive to the Washington, D.C. area for poke. So they jumped at the chance to open a poke stall in R. House.

With its combination of fresh fish, rice and soy marinades, poke is a good example of Hawaiian cuisine's "melting pot" nature. The waves of immigrants who came to the islands over hundreds of years shaped the evolving food traditions.

Kaimana Chee, the executive chef of Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz, was born and raised on the North Shore of Oahu, but counts many nationalities in his heritage.

"While I'm mostly native Hawaiian, I'm also Filipino, Samoan, Chinese and a little English, so I grew up in this culinary landscape influenced by my Filipino grandmother, my Hawaiian/Chinese grandfather and a Samoan grandfather," said Chee, who also runs Halau Nohona Hawai'i, a Hawaiian cultural school in Silver Spring. "I think that, in itself, states the tapestry of what Hawaiian cuisine is."

In addition to fresh fish and rice, typical Hawaiian foods often incorporate fruit, pork and chicken, staples of the islands' first settlers, who likely arrived from French Polynesia between 500 and 700 A.D. Taro, a starchy tuber with leaves that can be eaten like greens, is also a mainstay and the primary ingredient in the classic Hawaiian dish poi.

Ingredients like salted salmon, onions, garlic and tomatoes arrived with the whaling industry in the late 18th century. Asian immigration brought soy sauce, sesame oil and sesame seeds in the 19th century, while the Portuguese introduced popular sugar-coated doughnuts called malasadas.

Following World War II, the canned ham Spam — a key ingredient in the sushi-like dish spam musubi — gained popularity in Hawaii.

Just seeing the word "spam" on a menu draws mixed reactions, said Mingie Cha, the general manager of Aloha Sushi and Bar in Mid-Town Belvedere.

Aloha's chef, Young Yu, is from Hawaii, and the restaurant's menu includes numerous dishes inspired by his home state.

"We have people from Hawaii who come here just to get spam musubi," said Cha. "A lot of people are curious to know what it is. You get both positive and negative reactions when you hear 'spam,' but once you try it, the flavors are incredible."

Another 20th-century Hawaiian dish, loco moco, has been popular at Park Bench Pub in Riverside for several years. Owner Richard Chung learned about the dish — rice topped with ground beef, an egg and gravy — from a former girlfriend who was Hawaiian and Japanese. He was inspired to put it on the menu when he realized he already had all the ingredients.


"It was just a novelty I threw on the menu," Chung said. "I sell quite a bit of it during the colder months."

Robert Alcain, the chef and catering manager of Taste of Aloha, an Arbutus restaurant that is temporarily closed after a recent fire, said food is central to Hawaiian culture.

"I was born and raised in Hawaii, and food has been an integral part of us being a family," he said.

Chee, of Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz, said that in Hawaii, learning the culinary culture doesn't necessarily require professional training.

"I grew up around great home cooks," he said. "Nobody was a chef in a restaurant, but my family catered big luaus for our community. Growing up in that culture laid the foundation for my love of food."

Chee also notes that even without a formal culinary culture, Hawaiian cooks developed a keen understanding of how flavors and textures work together.

"Hawaiians, not knowing anything about flavor profiles, were cognizant of contrasting and supporting flavor dimensions," he said. "Our pork and fish had to be salty to be preserved before technology. So poi — mashed taro and water — was bland. They were advanced enough to understand we have a salty protein, so we need a bland starch."

The ascent of Hawaiian food, poke in particular, has spurred conversations about authenticity and whether adaptations of the cuisine are appropriate.

Local chefs and restaurateurs acknowledge that the dishes included on menus in Maryland may not be authentic representations of traditional Hawaiian food. But they say they are comfortable with that.

Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz owner Kosmas "Tommie" Koukoulis, who also owns the Italian restaurant Cafe Mezzanotte in Severna Park, said that at Uncle's, adaptations are thoughtful and deliberate.

"We're not ashamed to say we've taken liberties to elevate dishes to make them better and more acceptable to the mainland palate," said Koukoulis, whose wife, Pohai, is from Hawaii. "I don't think that by putting [Chee's] touches on these classics we are not paying the homage they're due. That's part of being a chef — elevating dishes and putting personal touches on them. But we do try to never lose sight of the essence of the dish."

The construction of traditional Hawaiian dishes was often driven by economics, he said, citing kalua pig, a slow-cooked pulled pork dish that is mixed with cabbage, as an example. "The reason the cabbage was mixed in was because people couldn't afford pork for the whole family. But times have changed and we can afford it now, so we serve just the pig by itself, but over grilled cabbage steak."

"There are purists in any culture or tradition, and there are people that accept change and adaptability," said Chee. "I realize that the poke today is not like what my ancestors ate 300 years ago."

Though he's seen poke misunderstood or described incorrectly in the media, Chee said the opportunity to share his culture with a wider community is worth the risk of some misinterpretation.

"People know about poke in Germany and France. How amazing is it that now, in Belgium, people eat poke? To me, that is awesome."


Ahi Tuna Poke

Poke relies more on its fresh ingredients than complicated technique. This recipe, from Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz chef Kaimana Chee, is simple.

Yields 1 serving

1 cup cubed, good quality ahi tuna
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon ginger, grated
1 teaspoon garlic, grated
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons green onion, chopped
1 teaspoon chili sauce or hot sauce (optional)

Gently combine all ingredients in a bowl and enjoy.

Coconut Chocolate Rice Pudding

Coconuts and rice are staples of Hawaiian cuisine. Together, in this rice pudding from Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz chef Kaimana Chee, they create tasty dessert.

Yields about 4 servings

1 14-ounce can coconut milk
1/4 to 1/2 cups sugar (adjust to desired taste)
1/4 to 1/2 cups cocoa powder (adjust to desired taste)
2 cups cooked rice

In a saucepan over medium high heat, combine the coconut milk and sugar. Heat for 4 minutes.

Whisk in the cocoa powder, stirring until smooth. At this point, the mixture should be simmering.

Fold in the cooked rice and mix well.

Turn the heat down to medium and cook for another 2 minutes, then remove and enjoy.

Lilikoi Creme Brulee

Lilikoi is the Hawaiian word for passion fruit. This recipe relies on lilikoi concentrate, which can be found at specialty stores and online, and which may be frozen or jarred.

Yields 4 servings

6 egg yolks
2 cups whipping cream
1/3 cup plus 8 teaspoons granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon lilikoi concentrate (defrosted, if frozen)

Special equipment: 4 6-ounce ceramic ramekins and kitchen torch

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place 4 6-ounce ceramic ramekins in a 9-inch by 13-inch pan.

Fill a saucepan with water and bring to a boil.

While the water is boiling, create the creme brulee mixture. In a small bowl, slightly beat the egg yolks with a wire whisk.

In a large bowl, stir the cream, 1/3 cup sugar and vanilla together until well mixed.

Add the egg yolks to the cream, sugar and vanilla, and beat with a whisk until the mixture is evenly colored and well-blended.

Add the lilikoi concentrate and mix well.

Pour the mixture evenly into the ramekins.

Carefully place the pan with the ramekins in the oven. Being careful not to splash the water into the ramekins, pour enough boiling water into the pan so that the water covers two-thirds the height of the ramekins.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the top of the creme brulee is golden brown and the sides have set.

Using tongs or grasping the tops of the ramekins with a potholder, carefully transfer the ramekins to a cooling rack. Cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Cover each ramekin tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled.

Uncover the ramekins. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of granulated sugar over each chilled custard.

Holding a kitchen torch 3 to 4 inches away from the custard, caramelize the sugar on each custard by heating with the torch for about 2 minutes, moving the flame continuously over the sugar in a circular motion, until the sugar is melted and light golden brown.