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Poke Invasion: A Fresh Take on Raw Fish

From Maui to Manhattan, poke shops are popping up everywhere, to the delight of raw fish and island flavor aficionados.

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

Poke (poh-keh) is redefining fast food and bringing joy to the palates of raw fish fans everywhere. Not since the introduction of the aloha shirt has a Hawaiian import been so eagerly embraced by the rest of America.

From Maui to Manhattan and from Seattle to San Diego, poke shops are popping up in strip malls, shopping centers, and restaurant districts, offering the kind of cafeteria-style, build-your-own options that have made chains like Subway (45,000 stores worldwide) a fast-food industry giant.

The poke invasion is gaining steam in Little Tokyo, where four restaurants have opened in less than two years. Snociety led the way, followed by Oh My Poki, Poke Express by Honda Ya, and Spin Fish Poke House, all within a couple of blocks of each other.

In the Sawtelle/West Los Angeles area, poke cravings can be satisfied at places like Sea Salt Poke, Sweet Fin Poke, Poke Shaka, and Asakuma Sushi. In the Gardena/Torrance district, with its large Japanese American population, poke can be found on the menus of long-standing local eateries, such as Gardena Bowl Coffee Shop, Moana Grill, Bob’s Hawaiian Style Restaurant, Lady Bug Asian Grill, and Maui Chicken.

Even Costco has joined the poke revolution.

Orange County boasts nearly a dozen restaurants with poke on the menu, like California Fish Grill (Irvine), Poke District (Orange), Fish Camp and North Shore Poke Company (Huntington Beach), Kawamata Seafood (Dana Point), Pokinometry (Anaheim), and Bear Flag Fish Company (Newport Beach).

Even more astounding is finding poke in the refrigerated bins of grocery stores and supermarkets. Gelsons, Whole Foods, Bristol Farms, and even Costco have joined the poke revolution.

Expect to pay anywhere from $9 to $15 on average for your poke experience, not including beverage and extras like miso soup.

Choices of protein often include ahi tuna, salmon, spicy tuna, albacore, hamachi, shrimp, scallops, octopus, and tofu. Start with a bed of white or brown rice, mixed greens, chips, or (in some places) chilled rice noodles. Add a sauce like sesame shoyu, ponzu, wasabi cream, sweet chili, or Sriracha aioli. Then top with any combination of green or sweet onions, cilantro, cucumber, furikake, crispy garlic, seaweed salad, crab salad, tamago, or avocado.

The test of a good poke bowl is, of course, the freshness of the fish and hitting upon the right combination of proteins, and seasonings to suit your taste. For the neophyte poke diner, creating the perfect poke concoction can be daunting. The trick is to enhance the flavor of the protein, not bury it in condiments. There can be a fine line between a culinary masterpiece and ruining perfectly good fish.

Many places suggest their own recipes, such as the Spin Fish Poke House’s Aloha 808, which consists of sesame shoyu, Hawaiian sea salt, chili flakes, green onions, and sweet onions. But don’t be afraid to experiment.

The onslaught of poke purveyors across the United States is satisfying a trend that could become a tradition. However, the ultimate poke dish may be Chef Tetsuya Nakao’s Bigeye Ahi Poke with Matsuhisa dressing. Nakao and his younger brother, Shunji, also a chef, helped establish Matsuhisa of Beverly Hills before deciding to launch their own restaurant, Asanebo, in Studio City in 1991. The restaurant has earned Michelin Stars in 2008 and 2009.

Nakao’s delicate combination of mixed seaweed, shiso, sweet onion, and choice of tuna, salmon or octopus consistently draws praise and has become a house signature dish.

Bigeye ahi tuna at Asanebo in Studio City.

According to Da Hawaiian Poke Company of Honolulu, poke is believed to be a centuries-old snack that pre-dates the arrival of Captain Cook. The original dish consisted of scraps of reef fish and seaweed mixed with crushed kukui nuts and sea salt. Reportedly, as Japanese began arriving in the Islands, shoyu was added.

Convinced that poke is here to stay, some companies have launched multi-location chains. Among them is Baldwin Park-based Pokeworks, which has opened nine stores since 2015 in New York, California, and Washington and plans to open another 13 stores nationwide. Another chain, All About Poke, recently opened five stores in La Cañada/Flintridge, Burbank, Rancho Palos Verdes, Studio City, and Eagle Rock.

Poke restaurateurs claim that ingredients, including the fish, are local and sustainable. Will poke prove to be the next great success story in the convenience food marketplace? Or is it a passing trend?

“It’s like a big bowl of sushi,” gushed Elena, a 20-something millennial who had just ordered her poke creation. Perhaps millennials, whose affinity for ramen lifted that dish to massive popularity, will do the same for poke.

Photos by ELLEN ENDO/Rafu Shimpo

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