I LOVE POKE, AND I REALLY LOVE GREAT FOOD FESTS

Photos by Lindsay Bullis.

The 7th annual I Love Poke festival took place at Bali Hai restaurant this week, and instead of forever smacking my forehead as I’ve done after missing each of the previous years, I finally made it to Shelter Island to gorge on raw fish salad. What I found was San Diego’s best food festival of the year.

pokeboard

I’m no stranger to food fests. San Diego is blessed to feature many of them — between all the sunshine and outdoor spaces, some Saturdays the discerning binge foodie has to choose between scarfing down sample servings with beer, and scarfing down sample servings with wine. Last month alone we saw a paella festival, a crawfish festival and two separate taco fests.

Every single one of them sounds delicious on paper, and most of them succeed (especially those with tacos). But there are some food festival fails that can put a cramp on the feel-good vibe— long lines, vendors running out of food, a lack of shade or places to relax between bites.

pokeskyline

I Love Poke had none of these problems. The deck outside Bali Hai sits directly on San Diego Bay, and since the evening festival started around 6pm there was no direct sunlight or glare — just beautiful weather and fresh ocean air. Making this year’s fest even more timely is the fact poke salad has never been as popular on the mainland as it is right now.

poketable

A couple dozen poke options were on hand with little or no waiting, so feasters could stroll from one to the next and achieve almost instant gratification. It wasn’t even restricted to poke. Miramar’s SuperNatural Sandwiches were serving slices of their Korean beef melts. Their friends from San Diego Macarons were serving tiny macaron ice cream sandwiches. And continuing the island theme of the night was shaved ice from were Snoice and SnoCal.

But why fast forward to dessert? Everybody was there to fill up on variations of the dish mixing raw fish, sesame oil and chili flakes.

urbpokeprep

That includes 20 restaurants competing for best poke bragging rights. A panel of judges sat together in the middle of the festival, scoring sample after sample. “How do I get that gig?” I jokingly asked them. I’m pretty sure they heard that 50 times before the night was done. And I’m pretty sure, like me, they didn’t find a bad poke in the bunch.

pokeboat

Everything I ate was outstanding. Some went for authentic and spicy route, others fruited their salads with mango or pineapple. Most of the restaurants competing are local, including to-be-expected entries from farmers market mainstays San Diego Poke Co. and ILYNLYF Foods. Some beer-centric spots got in on the action too — might be time for The High Dive and Toronado to put poke on their regular menus.

I tried a couple outstanding out of town entries as well. Da Hawaiian Poke Co. showed up from Honolulu with two styles of poke: one traditional, one spicy. The “Old School” one featured roasted kukui nut and limukohu seaweed, with the professed goal of “tasting like the sea.” Yes it did.

pokespoons

Poke Australia even came all the way from Sydney to share their excellent take, served with black rice. When I asked the chef why she came so far to San Diego to compete in a poke contest, she said, “It would be silly not to.” She was right.

pokeauscrop

Somehow, the judges managed to name a favorite, and that came from Barrio Logan catering company turned restaurant Sushi on a Roll. Second place went to another caterer, Surfside Cuisine. And third went to Cardiff’s Seaside Market — which I especially like because grocery stores in Hawaii are some of the best places on earth to get great poke.

Naturally, the real winner was me. And everyone else who made it to the small sold out festival. Despite a lack of free craft beer, this one exceeded expectations. Next year, don’t sleep on buying tickets — you won’t be disappointed.