Raw fish, Hawaiian style in Huntington Beach
Shawn Gote fell in love with Hawaii in his four years there with the Coast Guard. After he finished his service last year, it didn't take long to think about what he would do next.
His dad, Mark Gote, picked him up at the airport and before they got home suggested opening a poke restaurant. The father and son opened the doors of North Shore Poke Co. in Huntington Beach in March, less than six months later.
They couldn't get enough of Hawaiian poke, so they felt confident the marinated raw fish would catch on with an Orange County population addicted to sushi. Already, the dish had begun making an appearance at various restaurants as an appetizer, served to impress in a martini glass or with wonton chips. The Gotes still saw plenty of room for a dedicated poke restaurant, more in line with the casual take-out spots in Hawaii.
The restaurant, just outside the touristy stretch of Huntington Beach's Main Street, allows poke lovers to fill our bellies with the spiced fish without the trappings of more upscale seafood restaurants. Ahi or salmon poke is available by the pound, but most of the lunch crowd goes for a poke rice bowl ($8.99 for small or $10.99 for large). Diners line up to choose from five flavorings, which are added to the fish to order, and the mixture is then scooped on top of rice or cucumbers.
The Pipeline, the most traditional marinade, brings together savory shoyu with sweet sesame oil and chili pepper. The bold blend of flavors coat cool, slippery cubes of deep red ahi as well as tangy strips of onion. Sticky rice acts as a blank slate against the salty mixture, and its rather tough texture works well with the tender tuna.
I typically prefer ahi to other types of poke, but North Shore's salmon proves so good I can't call a favorite. The hunks of pink fish are striated with fat, bringing a buttery quality to the mixture. This time I try Chef Shawn's blend, which he calls Off the Wall. Oyster sauce, ginger, a blend of soy sauces and sesame oil combine for a taste that's more laid back than the saltier Pipeline.
Each bowl comes with a side of a simple cucumber salad. Paper-thin rounds are doused in white vinegar, a fresh, tart contrast to the indulgence of the rice bowls.
Each flavor of ahi poke can also serve as the filling of a fish taco ($1.75 each or $4.95 for three). The corn tortilla and bitter shredded cabbage are standard, easily overshadowed by what's within. I try the Haleiwa blend, which adds wasabi and coconut milk to the soy sauce and sesame oil base. The heat is relatively mild, with the wasabi imparting more of its piquancy than any type of fire. Tiny orange masago, smelt eggs, add a bit of salty crunch.
After so much soy sauce and sesame oil, the sashimi sandwich ($5.95) is a delicious outlier on the menu. Its components are simple – alfalfa sprouts, avocado, dressing and slices of ahi. Against the soft La Brea bread, creamy avocados and melt-in-your-mouth tuna, I could use more of a crunch than the sprouts are able to give. Even so, the gooey fillings are irresistible as they're covered by papaya seed dressing. Its peppery zing gives the simple ingredients the oomph to be memorable.
If you're lucky, you can finish your meal with a slice of chocolate coconut haupia pie. They're sold out on my visits, a small disappointment since I know I'll be back. After all, this is the poke restaurant in Orange County.
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