Taste of Hawaii

Modern meets traditional at ‘Ono Poké

Photography by Brandon Dill

Having lunch at Hawaiian restaurant ‘Ono Poké has been part of my weekly routine for about six years now. As a raw-fish enjoyer, as soon as I saw their “Coming Soon!” sign while I was driving east down Poplar, I knew it was inevitable that my body would become about 30 percent marinated salmon.

For those unfamiliar with poké (pronounced “po-kay” like in Pokémon), it’s a Hawaiian dish of rice, fish—usually raw salmon or tuna— with a variety of veggie toppings and sauces to finish. ‘Ono Poké has a variety of poké bowls to pick from, or you can create your own. My go-to meal is the Traditional Bowl, which features a simple combo of rice, tuna, and macaroni salad topped off with a housemade yuzu-soy sauce.

In fact, all of  ‘Ono Poké’s sauces are made on-site and are bottled for purchase. To me, the star of the show is the signature Pele sauce: a spicy, smoky masterpiece made with mayonnaise, sriracha, and a secret combination of spices and other ingredients. Its namesake is Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and creator of the Hawaiian islands and sometimes referred to as the “shaper of the sacred lands.” It’s an apt name, seeing as how the Pele sauce is what pulls the dish up from the ocean floor into heights above. It’s the magma that forms the island. It goes on everything!

However, while you may be tempted to drown your poké in sauces, the man behind the meals thinks the perfect poké bowl requires just one thing.

“You don’t need anything more than just salt. Maybe some onion,” says Gai. He runs the place, so he should know.

Gai, whose full name is Tinawat Klaimongkol but insists you call him Gai, hails from Thailand. After moving to the United States in 1997 to study tourism management, he found many opportunities to travel. He spent a couple months on Oahu between 1998 and 1999 before settling in Memphis in 2002. He opened ‘Ono Poké in 2017. 

A historically traditional poké bowl—which is different from the Traditional Bowl on Gai’s menu—has very few ingredients. “In Hawaii, it was kept very simple because fish, salt, and maybe some seaweeds were the only ingredients they used,” Gai explains. “It wasn’t until the Japanese came to the island that they started to introduce soy sauce.” 

It’s true. The history of poké parallels with that of many dishes in indigenous cuisines that are still enjoyed today—mostly utilitarian creations that eventually evolved into an edible timeline of a peoples’ history, including colonization and immigration. When the English arrived in Hawaii in the late 18th century, they brought onions with them. Japanese and Chinese immigrants arrived in the mid-19th century and brought sesame oil, soy sauce, and the tataki fish preparation method. These additions build the foundation of the style of poké enjoyed worldwide.  

The menu Gai has created for ‘Ono Poké celebrates both traditional-style poké and the more popular loaded style, which he calls “California-style,” due to how the dish was served on the West Coast after it became popularized.

“I use that term because in Hawaii they don’t eat with salad or other vegetables, like I said,” Gai reiterates. “A lot of people, when they have poké, they think fish with, you know, mayonnaise or something mixed in. It’s not like that. I wanna keep it real. When people go to Hawaii and come back, I want them to think, ‘Man, he’s got what they got over there.’”

While the historically traditional poké isn’t explicitly on the menu, Gai will make it for you if you ask. Of course, if you want cabbage, kale, broccoli, cucumber, avocado, edamame, mango, pineapple, carrot, or even kimchi on your poké bowl, Gai is more than happy to oblige. The menu features over a dozen different different items, and you can create custom bowls for hundreds of other possible combinations.

“We offer California-style poké as well because I want people to have choices!” he says.

And poké isn’t the only thing on the menu. You’ll also find salads, sandwiches, specialty lemonades, and more.

Gai’s commitment to both the modern and traditional is something he practiced in his first restaurant too. He opened Skewer in East Memphis in 2014. It was Memphis’ first yakitori restaurant and, according to Gai, was Memphis’ first ramen spot. (It did beat Robata to launch by about a month!)

When Skewer closed, Gai looked for a new opportunity. When he learned that one of his favorite Hawaiian dishes was blowing up on the West Coast, he decided that if he could kickstart Memphis’ ramen craze, he could do the same for poké. 

“I remembered how much I liked the taste of it. I thought other people would too, you know?” he explains.

If you’re wondering how a small, niche operation like this has survived so long, you can thank good ol’ fashioned elbow grease. Business before 2019 was livelier than Gai could have imagined, but during the pandemic years there was nearly nothing. 

“I struggled for a year,” he says. “But because we weren’t busy, I was able to put myself in a trainee position to get all the skills I needed to run this by myself.”

Since then, ‘Ono Poké has been a one-man show. Front of house, back of house, and everything in between—that’s Gai. Well, more or less. When Gai started offering meal delivery, his wife filled in as the sole delivery driver on top of working her own job. His son and daughter, 15 and 12 respectively, help out with prep when they have time away from school and extracurriculars.

Gai wasn’t planning on ‘Ono Poké being a family business, but he’s glad it is.

“Without them, I wouldn’t have a chance,” he says. “This is something I can give to them.”

We can also thank ourselves, Memphis, for keeping ‘Ono Poké alive. 

“Memphis people are great about supporting local business,” Gai says. “I really, really appreciate the patrons who have been supporting us. And other local businesses too. I’m glad I landed here in Memphis, to be part of the community.”

3145 Poplar Avenue
@ono_poke_memphis

Wesley Morgan Paraham is a Memphis native who thinks the only thing better than eating good food is sharing it with others. @bigcity.mid

Brandon Dill has found a home in Memphis. When not planning road trips with his wife or building blanket forts with his two daughters, he likes to take pictures. His photos have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and others. @bdillphoto