By CAROLYN LUCAS-ZENK
Kailua-Kona resident Nakoa Pabre is taking one of Hawaii’s oldest food preparations and transforming it into haute cuisine. At his new poke and local-style lunch bowl eatery, Umekes, this Food Network fan said he’s constantly playing around and creating new mixtures with ever-changing ingredients while never compromising the integrity of the fish.
“There’s a new one every day,” he added.
Pabre, 35, was a journeyman plumber for 11 years until he decided to leave the trade and channel his soul into poke.
“Plumbing is a good trade, but you don’t get that instant gratification,” he said. “Why I do this is simple: I enjoy seeing the reactions people have from my food. It makes them happy, which in turn makes me happy.”
Growing up, Pabre said he was the kid who was adamant about helping everyone prepare food at parties, always watching and learning. His sons — 5-year-old Kanoa and 3-year-old Kamalu — seem to be following in his footsteps.
At their beckoning, Pabre is already teaching them knife-handling skills, something that makes him proud.
Pabre helped open Da Poke Shack, a well-known local food spot next to Banyans, in 1999.
He recently won the 2013 Sam Choy’s Keauhou Poke Contest, an experience he called “very humbling and exciting.” His “Poke Bombs,” cone sushi topped with a various types of poke, were a crowd-pleaser at the competition and won the professional division sushi category.
Pabre decided to open Umekes in February to help satisfy a hunger, as well as express his roots and passion for food in one quintessential, yet deceptively simple pupu. For him, poke encompasses more than just the components, a melange of seasoned cubes of fresh, raw fish and other ingredients. It can go beyond the traditional, briny basics of reef fish, sea salt, inamona (roasted ground kukui nut), limu (seaweed), shoyu and chili pepper.
Umeke means bowl in Hawaiian, and many bowls are offered, such as pulehu (broiled over a fire) or teriyaki beef, kalua or laulau pork, teriyaki or char siu chicken, and grilled fish or poke. Diners have their choice of several sides, including seaweed salad, crab and broccoli salad, spicy crab salad, hoio salad, lomi salmon, kimchee salad or poi, and rice or quinoa. Prices range from $7.50 to $18.
The ahi, tako (octopus) and shrimp poke comes in many different flavors, with prices starting at $11.99. There are also banana cream, chocolate, lilikoi and haupia dessert poppers for $3 each.
Over the years, Pabre has found people are becoming more adventurous eaters and are more open-minded about consuming raw fish. For these seafood lovers, he said a trip to Umekes requires only one thing: a good appetite.
“Poke is a huge staple in Hawaii. It’s no longer just a pupu; it’s the main dish,” he said. “Here, the focus is on the fresh fish, caught daily by local fishermen, and a fusion of flavors that leaves you craving for more.”
Open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Umekes is located at 75-143 Hualalai Road, Suite 105, in Kailua-Kona. Catering, daily specials and an outside dining area are available. For more information or place an order, call 329-3050 or 333-7380.
Email Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at firstname.lastname@example.org.