Ready to know more about San Diego?


I Love Poke Festival Is Back

Catching up with founder Nino Camilo, who recently sold the annual fest to Bali Hai
Courtesy of Bali Hai
I Love Poke Festival

I Love Poke Festival

Courtesy of Bali Hai

Next Monday, the long-running I Love Poke Festival returns to Bali Hai restaurant on Shelter Island. Restaurants from all over the county, including Market Bar Del Mar, Weapon Ramen, Waterbar, and Kairoa Brewing will serve interpretations of the popular seafood dish while a panel of judges crown a Poke Champion. Hodad’s, Supernatural Sandwiches, Pizza Kaiju, and others will serve up non-poke bites.

The festival host, as it is year after year, is San Diego native Nino Camilo. Camilo founded the event and recently sold it to Bali Hai.

“It was the right time,” he says. “It was the right price and the right people. I’m still, and always will be—as long as I’m here—the MC. I’ll always be a part of collaborating on who will participate. No one knows what the future holds, because we’ve been through a crazy two years.”

With no food events to organize and host during the county’s stay-home orders, Camilo spent his free time delivering meals for casual seafood restaurant Fish 101 in Leucadia and Cardiff. Initially, it kept him busy and connected (albeit socially distanced) with the North County community where he lives.

Ever the marketer, Camilo created an illustration of his face with the words “delivery boyeee,” slapped it on his van, and posted it on social media. The graphic also served a practical purpose, he says: “I didn’t want to drive through neighborhoods with my big white van slowly looking for an address with people outside. One, they thought I was Amazon… ” And sometimes they thought he was someone more unsavory. “So I needed some identification on my car that told people I was here to deliver something good.” 

Over time, the gig morphed into a full-time role as Fish 101’s marketing expert, where he handles everything from merchandising to guiding the restaurant’s design and graphics projects. Fish 101 serves a range of fish and shrimp tacos, seafood plates (including poke) with rice and leafy greens, a seafood curry with grilled fish and shrimp, and a selection of cruciferous sides like Brussels sprouts and broccolini. 

“We support local commercial fishermen in a huge way in San Diego,” Camilo says. “For instance, our shrimp is wild Mexican shrimp, our sockeye salmon is from a personal friend who literally goes to Alaska in the season, brings home the salmon, and processes it.” Produce is as local and seasonal as possible.

While the poke boom has been described as a trend, historically the humble dish with deep Hawaiian roots is consumed throughout the islands—at potlucks, in the home—without much fanfare. (And without all of the Chipotle-style extra toppings some San Diego poke shops offer.)

In Hawai‘i, a typical poke recipe might involve cubed raw fish, a soy-sauce-based marinade, sliced onion, and seaweed. Fish, typically tuna, is the traditional protein star, though you’ll also find poke made with octopus or dried beef pipikaula. Poke refers to the dish and preparation method: In the Hawaiian language, “poke” means “slice” or “chunk.” 

European explorers gifted the Hawaiian monarchy cattle in the 19th century. Shortly after, Chinese and Japanese immigrants arrived in the islands and introduced soy sauce (“shoyu” to locals) and sesame oil. Before outside contact, indigenous Hawaiians ate fish with salt and seaweed.

The 11th Annual I Love Poke Festival takes place at Bali Hai restaurant on Monday, May 23.


By Ligaya Malones

Ligaya Malones grew up in Kaua’i, Hawai’i and is a San Diego-based writer covering the intersection of food, travel, and culture. Her work has appeared in publications including Food52, Condé Nast Traveler, Lonely Planet, and Salt & Wind Travel.

Share this post

Contact Us

1230 Columbia Street, Suite 800,

San Diego, CA