I should start this column by mentioning that for foodies in the know, poke is nothing new around here thanks to Nino “Neens” Camilo and his I Love Poke Festival that began seven years ago.
I would give some credit to those events for raising local awareness and laying the groundwork for the recent poke explosion. You can check out all the details on this fabulous festival at onoyum.com.
If you haven’t yet heard of poke (pronounced POH-kay), that’s bound to change soon.
A wave of restaurants serving this Hawaiian raw-food delight have already been ushering in the next new phenomenon in fast-casual food. This is a healthy and delicious trend that I can fully support.
Poke is a mix of raw cubes of seafood (usually ahi tuna or salmon) in a soy sauce-based marinade. It’s often garnished with seaweed, cucumber, avocado, or tobiko, and served over rice or greens. It’s everywhere in Hawaii — you can pick it up at grocery stores or even gas stations — poke is a deconstructed, flavorful version of sushi. It’s also generally healthy, endlessly customizable, and makes for a very attractive bowl or plate.
Thanks to my friend Mark Mihelich at Boundless Boat Charters, I’ve had a steady supply of Yellowfin and Bluefin tuna in my freezer for the past year and it’s been my go-to preparation.
Between that and the monster cucumbers that my VEG hydroponic garden has been producing, I’ve had two key ingredients to my house-made poke on hand. The rest of my poke bowl mix consists of brown rice, avocado, seaweed salad (can be purchased separately at Whole Foods or Lazy Acres) soy sauce, toasted sesame seed oil, and red chili pepper flakes.
Of course the toppings can be customized to your liking and almost endless in variety, but that is the mix I’ve settled on after much experimentation.
Like many Hawaiian exports, poke is hitting it big on the mainland. Already a mainstay in the Los Angeles dining scene, poke spots are popping up all over the East Coast and yes, even in Detroit. If it can take hold in Detroit, it can fly anywhere.
Poke fills the middle ground between quick salad bowls and the more calorie-filled offerings of say a Chipotle. Poke bowls fit that niche: they’re flavorful, packed with protein and don’t leave you feeling hungry two hours later, but are still light and healthy. By allowing a multitude of customizations, poke bowl restaurants are playing into our contemporary desire for new tastes and changing options.
For those concerned about health and quality, it is raw fish after all; restaurateurs say that the more volume being served, the fresher the product will be, very similar to oysters. Consistent consumption means that the fish turns and doesn’t sit for more than a day.
We can’t dismiss the fact that poke bowls come in bowls.
The bowl trend is well documented. It’s been said that bowls are the new plates after all and that trend is not slowing down anytime soon. That’s fine by me as bowls are the best way to combine all the delicious ingredients in a dish like this.
Poke is popping up all over San Diego and North County and some of the standout spots may surprise you. The Costco in Carlsbad has been getting rave reviews as their poke is sourced from a partner seafood distributor in Hawaii. Fish 101 is my gold standard for poke and their bowl is what I model my homemade version after. The Lanai in Leucadia, with it’s outdoor tropical feeling patio, makes you feel like you are in Hawaii and they have a lot of fun poke combinations.
Cardiff Seaside Market and the new Lazy Acres are both nice options and Lazy Acres has a full on poke bar similar to a salad bar. Poke Poke, Wicked Poke, and Guahan Grill are all solid Oceanside options and Pokewaii in San Marcos if you are further inland.
To me, poke is the perfect healthy lunch dish but if you load it up it can certainly make for a satisfying dinner. I like to pair it with a lightly flavored kombucha for lunch or a light, easy to drink pinot noir or full-bodied white for dinner. If raw fish freaks you out, poke is a great way to ease into it.
David Boylan is the founder of Artichoke Creative an Encinitas based integrated marketing firm. He also hosts Lick the Plate Radio that airs Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. on FM94/9, Easy 98.1, and KSON. Reach him at email@example.com or (858) 395-6905.