LA Raw

The poke craze hits SoCal
Story by Noel Nicholas. Photos by Oriana Koren.

Walking along the Venice Beach boardwalk in the early morning, I almost pass it. Then a woman ahead of me points and says to her companion, “Look, there’s that pokey place.” I follow her pointing finger to the small, surfboard-shaped sign reading “Poké-Poké: The Surfer’s Sashimi” hanging above a takeout window. Sitting at one of the blue picnic tables out front is Trish McVearry, beaming and waving.

When Trish and her husband, Jason, opened Poké-Poké in 2010, it was by all accounts the first poke restaurant in Los Angeles. She had become a huge fan of the Hawaiian dish of dressed raw fish while visiting O‘ahu with Jason six months earlier. Upon returning home, Trish was shocked to discover that not a single poke restaurant existed in a city where sushi is king. The McVearrys saw an opportunity. “We saw the ‘For Lease’ sign, and forty-eight hours later I was signing on the dotted line,” she tells me. “We didn’t have any suppliers. We didn’t have recipes. Everything after that was a whirlwind.”

The McVearrys’ original idea was to keep the menu simple with four popular poke preparations: shoyu (soy sauce), spicy mayonnaise, wasabi and “aloha,” a light sauce of shoyu, rice wine vinegar and chili flakes. The initial response was quizzical. “People were still learning what poke was,” says Trish, who decided to add an accent mark over the “e” in poke so that Angelenos would know how to pronounce it—a practice that’s become commonplace in LA’s burgeoning poke scene. “We were throwing out fish at the end of the day,” Trish says. “We had put all our money into the business, and I knew if something didn’t change, we weren’t going to make it.” So she came up with the idea of making the poke to order with untraditional ingredients like jalapeños, macadamia nuts, kale and avocado. Busi-ness went through the roof. “I remember the day I knew we were going to be OK,” says Trish. “It was about three months after we opened, and I was working at the window alone. Out of nowhere this line of people started to form fifteen customers deep! They were all talking about our food and so excited about poke. I was thrilled.”

Six years later poke is still flowing out of the little take-out window, with lines forming even on weekdays. It’s not hard to understand why. The poke is tossed with classic ingredients and served steps from one of California’s most popular beaches. Following the birth of their daughter several years ago, the McVearrys moved to Austin, where they’ve opened another Poké-Poké. If it catches on there like it has in Los Angeles, the Lone Star State will be awash in poke within five years.

Poke—pronounced “poh-KAY”—is a centuries-old Hawaiian staple originally comprising sliced raw reef fish, sea salt, limu (seaweed) and roasted kukui nuts—ingredients that in pre-contact times could all be readily found in the Islands. By the early twentieth century, however, new ingredients like shoyu and sesame oil had given rise to modern interpretations. The most recognizable involves dressing cubed ‘ahi (yellowfin tuna) with sesame oil, shoyu, chili and green and white onion. In the Hawaiian language, “poke” means to cut crosswise into pieces, but today just about any bite-sized morsel—whether tofu, mussels, crab or shrimp—seems fair game for the poke counter. As an appetizer or snack, poke is eaten by itself or scooped up with a chip. As a meal it’s served in a bowl over white or brown rice, like chirashi sushi.

As with other under-the-global-radar foods, poke has lately become a full-fledged trend on the Mainland, with poke restaurants popping up in almost every major US city over the past year. But no-where has the trend taken root more deeply than in Los Angeles, where Yelp now lists more than fifty restaurants where poke is the primary offering. A little over two years ago, there were fewer than five. It’s no mystery why poke has skyrocketed—it’s delicious—but why now? Why LA? I set out to talk to a few Angelenos who know a thing or two about it.

If you ask Eric Park, owner of Ohana Poké Co., he’ll say a big reason poke has caught on in SoCal is its versatility: It can take multiple forms and flavors, and it can be adapted to the LA palate. Park developed seven varieties of poke using the Latin, Korean, Thai and Japanese influences that define contemporary LA cuisine. Alongside his take on traditional shoyu and spicy ‘ahi poke, Park serves “Korean octopus,” slow-cooked in a shoyu-dashi broth and tossed with a spicy Korean chili base. His Chili Mango Tuna with chunks of ‘ahi, fresh mango and Thai chili evokes sweet-and-spicy Mexican candy. Customers can get their poke over rice or kale, or wrapped into a “pokérito,” a jalapeño cilantro tortilla lined with nori and filled with poke, rice, glass noodle salad and avocado. That invention earned Ohana Poké Co. a recent visit from the Food Network.

In early 2015 Park closed his two successful restaurants—Hero Shop, a modern banh mi spot in the downtown area, and Black Hogg, a trendy neighborhood bistro in Silverlake—and converted them both into Ohana Poké Co. “I didn’t want to keep coming home at midnight and missing out on time with my kids,” Park says. “I knew I needed a concept that would streamline operations, and I’ve always loved eating poke. LA’s appetite for sushi is unparalleled, and poke shares a lot of similarities.” Patrons of both establishments were baffled by the change, he says, but they came around because, well, poke.

For Ari Kahan, owner of Mainland Poke Shop, which opened in early 2015 in the stylish shopping corridor of West Third, it’s the availability of high-quality, fresh fish that’s made LA the perfect place for poke. “I’ve got to thank the sushi pioneers who came before us and brought the city quality fish,” he says. With so many new poke restaurants competing for the same niche, each one’s looking for a hook; for Kahan it’s freshness. He refuses to use previously frozen fish. Kahan and his staff hit the downtown fish markets or the docks in South Bay in the early morning looking for ‘ahi, albacore and salmon, along with seasonal seafood like tako, uni (sea urchin) and snapper. Fresh fish might not be that surprising to find in Hawai‘i poke, but Mainland Poke Shop is the only LA shop that guarantees it. “A lot of local seafood distributors are providing pre-cubed frozen fish now because of the demand created by the poke trend,” Kahan says. “The problem with that is when the fish thaws, the texture is all wrong. Most places mask this with strong marinades, but we refuse to.”

In the Hawaiian language, “poke” means to cut crosswise into pieces, and today just about any bite-sized morsel seems fair game for the poke counter. Many of the poke-focused restaurants in LA have taken this broad interpretation a step further, allowing customers to invent their own poke recipe from a variety of ingredients.

Along with chef Kayson Chong, Kahan developed five simple sauces (regular and spicy shoyu, Sriracha aioli, wasabi cream and coconut) and a small but satisfying selection of mix-and-match toppings. “Our goal was to create a menu where every ingredient could be put into the same bowl and still taste great,” he says. The simplified menu and appeal of bowl-building has made Mainland a destination for many poke tyros. “So many people come in and let us know this is their first raw fish experience,” says Kahan. “We guide them through the ingredients and make sure they love what they’re walking out with.” Apparently they do—Kahan will be opening two more locations later this year.

Farther west, in downtown Santa Monica, Sweetfin Poké offers the kind of elevated sauces and house-made toppings you’d expect in a high-end sushi restaurant rather than your typical Island poke joint. Co-owner Seth Cohen says Sweetfin taps into LA’s love for sushi but at a lower price. Given poke’s more rarefied treatment at Sweetfin, “it’s less poke and more like sushi 2.0,” Cohen says. With sauces like creamy togarashi or Sriracha ponzu and toppings like pickled shiitake mushrooms or wasabi toasted coconut, I see what he means. “Our menu has roots in Hawai‘i but reflects everything we love about multicultural California cuisine,” he says.

Cohen, a native Angeleno, says the idea came to him and partner Brett Nestadt soon after they graduated from the University of Southern California. “We both wanted to open a fast-casual restaurant that related back to our tastes as sushi lovers and healthy eaters. Poke just made sense,” Cohen says. “Fast-casual”—in which the absence of table service means lower prices and faster delivery—creates a happy medium between an expensive sit-down meal and fast food. It became hot in the wake of the recession, and poke fits neatly into the category.

By the time Sweetfin opened in April 2015, both poke and fast-casual were in demand; there were lines out the door on opening day, and the pace hasn’t slowed. Cohen credits Sweetfin’s popularity to its fast-casual, sushi-esque experience as well as its ability to meet various dietary restrictions. Chef Dakota Johnson of Top Chef fame designed the menu to be gluten- and dairy-free by using creative bases like bamboo rice, kelp noodles and kale. Bamboo rice is made by infusing short-grain rice with the juice of young bamboo plants; this gives it a shot of vitamin B, a slightly nutty flavor and, most noticeably, turns it green. Veggie-philes can substitute tofu or vegetables for fish. Cohen has calculated a whopping ninety-four million possible combinations with Sweetfin’s menu, possibilities he plans to make available at three new locations later this year.

All that Californication of traditional poke represents an unprecedented diversification of a simple Island dish. But if classic poke is what you’re after, you can get it. In an unassuming storefront in Redondo Beach, husband-and-wife team Jeff Snow and Stefanie Honda found success doing something pretty radical for LA: refusing to serve anything but Honda’s generations-old family poke recipes. The couple opened the aptly named Jus’ Poke (no accent) in 2013, before they had any inkling that poke would become a culinary phenomenon farther north. Honda was raised by kama‘āina (Island resident) parents in South Bay but spent summers on Maui and Hawai‘i Island, where her main chore was always to “go make the poke.” With professional fishermen on both sides of the family, that kept her pretty busy. Honda got her family’s permission to use the recipes and is serving five old-school ‘ahi variations (original, shoyu, spicy, wasabi and California roll), along with their one concession to LA culture: tofu poke for vegetarians.

Looks ‘ono (delicious) but is it poke? With more than fifty restaurants in LA now serving primarily poke, the dish has become as diverse as the city itself. Above, a suite of Sweetfin’s gourmet poke bowls: (left to right) classic tuna, spicy yuzu salmon and vegetable poke.

In the hour I spent talking with Honda and Snow at Jus’ Poke, four kama‘āina stopped by our table to introduce themselves and compliment the food. Maybe it’s the local girl in me, or maybe classics are classics for a reason, but of all the delicious and interesting poke I had in Los Angeles, it was Jus’ Poke’s Original—nothing but ‘ahi, salt, sesame oil, ogo (seaweed) and onions—that I couldn’t get enough of.

Trends come and go, and not every poke shop in LA will last. But the city has a sustained and insatiable sushi appetite, and poke is being welcomed as its casual cousin. Maybe there’s nothing surprising about poke’s newfound popularity in a city already in love with fresh, raw fish. Except perhaps that it didn’t happen sooner. HH