In Hawaii, poke (PO-kay) is everywhere from gas stations to roadside stands to high-end hotels that charge triple what any sane Hawaiian would rightfully pay for the aquatic delicacy. In Los Angeles, poke is the future and those high-end Hawaiian hotel prices will become the norm here on the mainland — but it doesn’t matter. Poke is undergoing an explosion in LA and like the food truck craze of the late 2000s that went national, this tuna trend is bound to spread across the country like a fish-fueled brush fire.
I love poke. I’ve loved it since my first trip to Hawaii and with the exception of loco mocos, poke is my favorite Hawaiian food. If you haven’t had it, you’re missing out. Poke means “to slice or cut” in Hawaiian and that’s basically what you get: fish (usually ahi tuna) cut up into cubes and tossed with a little soy sauce (the Hawaiians call it shoyu), limu (algae/sea fern), and any number of other ingredients. Personally, I love avocado, macadamia nuts, and either sriracha or crushed red pepper flakes to give it a spicy kiss. You can have the fish as is or plop it on top of a bed of rice to create a tekka-don bowl of sorts. It’s fresh, healthy, and extremely satisfying after a morning on the waves.
We may not have a lot of surfable waves here in LA (contrary to popular belief), but we do love our healthy trends and poke is about to be the king trend of summer 2015. No less than five shops have either recently opened or will open by the time the heat waves roll in. I’ve been scoping out the poke bars at grocery stores like Bristol Farms and Sprouts for a while now, but the poke game is changing and that means the simple fish in a plastic container that I’ve been used to is going Hollywood.
At Sweetfin Poke, a bright cove of a fast-casual spot just blocks from the Santa Monica shore, they’re selling poke Chipotle-style with a former Top Chef contestant at the helm. Dakota Weiss has created eight signature bowls for fish fans to choose from, but the more adventurous among us can choose their poke destiny from the BYOB (Build Your Own Bowl) section. Pick your main ingredient from tuna, salmon, snapper, albacore, tofu, or chopped veggies then decide your base. The bamboo rice has a nice bite to it and the citrus-kale salad should appeal to the cardio-barre set nicely. My favorite was actually the kelp noodle-cucumber slaw, which makes a solid swap out for anyone going gluten free. In fact, everything here is gluten free. With a great variety of sauces to add in (go with the yuzu kosho or the ponzu-lime) plus a bunch of free add-ons like edamame and crispy onions, your bowl becomes a full-on meal that won’t leave you crying for a desk nap at 3pm.
What I love about Sweetfin and the rest of the new poke players in LA is that they haven’t just brought poke to LA. They’ve brought LA to poke. This is so much more than just fish and soy sauce in a bowl. It’s a combination of the make-your-own-salad trend mashed up with the basics of poke and the result is something I’d like to eat at least once a week. In fact, Sweetfin owner Seth Cohen says people have been coming in twice a day. I’m not surprised. This is the type of food that Angelenos are always looking for: healthy, flavorful, and filling all at the same time.
There’s no telling when the poke explosion will ignite the rest of the country. While still in its infancy here in Los Angeles, it’s clear that it’s going to be big. Will the market get saturated with cubed fish mongers? Yes. Will every major neighborhood from Venice to Downtown end up with their own poke shop? Yes. Will anyone be complaining? No way. At least not yet. When a new trend like LA poke is just cresting, you’ve got to ride the wave all the way to the beach.