This week I tried Pono Hawaiian Grill in Santa Cruz for a quick lunch. A friend had recommended the poke here highly after I had whined about the miserable examples springing up in the Bay Area.
Pono has many variations of poke. However, the overhead menu and the take-out paper menu do not describe them in detail. The only complete description is affixed to the cashier's counter where you place your order. In deference to the people in line behind me, I did not take the time to study it closely. Instead I ordered the #55 Bowl, $11.95, a new item here created in loving memory of Jr. Seau #55 himself. It includes Hawaiian Kalua pork, traditional Hawaiian style shoyu poke, seaweed salad and japanese ginger atop sticky rice.
I grabbed an Aloha Maid passionfruit drink, $2, and a piece of cake from the self-serve fridge. Then out to the back patio next to the banana palms and tiki hut with my order number to wait for my food. On a sunny day, this was like a humidity-free version of Hawaii.
The #55 Bowl was more food than I expected for the price, heaped with lightly smoked and juicy pork butt that was so tasty and a generous amount of shoyu poke over the sticky rice. Cut into large cubes, the ahi tuna was top notch and well trimmed with not a bit of sinew or blood lines. A light hand with the shoyu to not obscure the delicate taste of the fresh fish, a problem I've had at other spots that drown the seafood in soy sauce. The poke included crisp slivers of sweet onion, scallions and sesame seeds. No kukui or limu, but the simplicity of this style appealed to me. The rice was a touch too soft, but still cooked better than most. Seaweed salad and pickled ginger filled in the bowl with color, crunch and palate-cleansing flavors.
For dessert, Mango chiffon cake, $5, baked by Meli's Island Treats. Considering this was held over from Aloha Friday and rather stale, I still thought it was wonderful and can't wait to try more from this custom baker.
When I mentioned to my brother how much I enjoyed my lunch, he related that his one meal at Pono had been a big letdown. However, he did not have Kalua pig nor poke, so there may well be some other weak points on the menu. I'd love to hear what else is good here. Has anyone tried the loco moco made with grassfed beef?
Pono Hawaiian Grill
120 Union St
Santa Cruz, CA