Are we running out of tuna?
Standing here in Poke Etc, in the middle of National City’s Highland View Center, I’m starting to wonder. Little signs on the counter say they’re going to have to charge more, due to a shortage of tuna.
“It’s just a shortage in some parts of the world,” says Ernie, the Filipino guy who’s running the joint right now.
But you Google tuna and get stories quoting something called the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean, which said that the Pacific bluefin tuna population has shrunk by more than 97, yes, 97 percent since the 1960s.
Of course, the Japanese were eating 80 percent of the world tuna catch in 2016 when those figures came out. So we’re not necessarily the bad guys, and there are other kinds of tuna, such as yellowfin, which is apparently the poke mainstay, and they’re still “abundant” (at least pro-biz Bloomberg says that), but still. What is going on? And if you think the alarm bells are just all fake news, how come these guys right here are having to up their tuna poke prices by a buck per serving?
I mean, remember that poke only took us (California) by storm three years ago, and New York two years ago. And these fish are wild, not farmed like salmon. And big. The Pacific bluefin can weigh 1000 pounds. The Atlantic bluefin can weigh 1500. And magnificent. Some tuna can swim at around 50 miles per hour.
“Sir, we’re closing soon,” says Ernie. Oh right. Guess I got lost googling tuna stats.
So the fact is, I need some of the pure protein tuna has. Not greasy cheeseburgers. I want energy, and I want healthy.
So lessee: Bowls of steamed rice and ahi poke go for $8.95, up from $7.95 (and turns out “poke” means “chunks,” and “ahi” means “fire” in Hawaiian. Why call tuna “fire?” Because of how the fishing line smokes from the friction when it’s tearing out over the gunwale after a tuna has caught the hook). Salmon poke bowl’s $9.95. Ditto poke salad, with mixed greens and sesame dressing.
There’s also a kimchee poke bowl, for $8.95. Or, for $10.95, you can mix any two poke flavors (and they have everything from shoyu – soy – to oyster sauce to ginger to sweet’n spicy) plus a seaweed salad. Or, if you’re willing to take market price, you can have mussel poke, or octopus poke.
Then they have the normal combos you think of as Hawaiian, all $8.95. Teriyaki chicken, kalua pork with cabbage and onions, pork tonkatsu (a breaded pork cutlet), shoyu chicken, which is a chicken boiled in soy sauce with sugar and spices to make it interesting. The tempura shrimp plate comes with six pieces, and fish katsu’s basically a panko-breaded white fish. And yes, they all come with macaroni salad and steamed rice on the side. And you can add a little poke for $2 more.
But I’m looking at the combo plates. The Aloha Plate’s kalua pork and your choice of poke plus rice for $9.95, the “Kaili’s” chicken adobo and poke, Island Bento’s teriyaki chicken, tonkatsu (that breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet) and poke. This is $11.95.
The one I land on is the Kama’aina Plate. “Kama’aina” means “child of the land.” Seems “Kama’aina” is the name for anyone who lives in Hawaii but isn’t actually Hawaiian. Like “Haole,” but more gentle, maybe.
916 East 8th Street, National City
Whatever, this plateful is a mix too: kalua pork, laulau (“leaf leaf.” Think Hawaiian soul food. It’s basically pork plus a piece of butterfish, cod, wrapped in taro leaves together, dropped underground into a hot rock imu oven, and left for a few hours). But first, you roll the taro with the meat and fish in a large ti leaf (not the same as a tea leaf. The ti leaf comes from the cabbage palm). Ti plants have big waxy leaves that can withstand a lot of heat. So they’re the perfect imu wrap. The one thing you don’t do is eat it. Too tough. It’ll give you indigestion.
I can’t wait. This is the first time I’ve seen this combo at a Hawaiian joint, probably because I wasn’t looking. But it’s interesting, and when Ernie brings out my loaded polystyrene box I know that $11.95 price is gonna be well worth it.
Ernie says the kalua pork has been shredded and smoked for six hours with cabbage and onions, and Hawaii’s famous sea salt, and when I chomp in, it has a vinegary, slightly sweet taste, with the cabbage relieving the saltiness. The taro (which you can eat) in the laulau section tastes more like cabbage, and the butterfish lightens up the tender steamed chunks of pork. Plus a tangy little pot of sweet hot sauce adds to the variety.
There’s rice, of course, and oh yeah: in a separate pot, the poke. You get the ahi chunks in spicy garlic and onions and sesame seeds. Ahi’s dee-lish, and good: no fat and tons of protein and omega-3, right? I know, I worry about the traces of mercury people talk about, but not right now. Little bit of rice, mix in with the laulau, swill it down with my can of Hawaiian Sun Lilikoi Passion Fruit ($1.40). Way too much, but am I complaining?
Of all the good stuff here, have to say, this tuna poke is the most spicy-scrumptious. Do I feel guilty eating the endangered tuna? “We’re changing where we get them now,” says Ernie. “Where we’re buying from now, they’ve got plenty.”
Hope he’s right.
The Place: Poke Etc., 916 E 8th Street, National City, 619-474-2866
Hours: 10am – 8pm, daily (till 6pm Sundays)
Prices: Bowl of ahi poke and steamed rice, $8.95; salmon poke bowl, $9.95; poke salad, $9.95; kimchee poke bowl, $8.95; two poke flavors, with seaweed salad, $10.95; choice of entrée plates, including teriyaki chicken, kalua pork, pork tonkatsu, shoyu chicken, tempura shrimp, fish katsu, $8.95 each; Aloha Plate (kalua pork, poke, rice), $9.95; Kaili Combo (chicken adobo, poke), $9.95; kama’aina plate (kalua, laulau, poke), $11.95; katsu curry bowl (pork or chicken), $8.95; chicken curry, $6.95
Buses: 929, 955, 968
Nearest Bus Stops: E8th at Highland (929, 955, 968 westbound); Highland at E8th (955, 968 northbound); Highland at E 8th (929, southbound)