This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of The National Culinary Review, the official magazine of The American Culinary Federation.
By Rob Benes
Poke has been a longtime staple in the Pacific islands. It’s a dish that traditionally features sliced or cubed raw fish, chopped Maui onion, Hawaiian red alaea sea salt, chopped kukui nut, julienned seaweed and soy sauce. For the past several years it’s been swimming its way across the nation— and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Poke claims the No. 1 spot in the Movers and Shakers—Trends Heating Up category in the National Restaurant Association’s 2017 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast.
Not only are independent restaurants adding poke as an appetizer or entree item, but there are new restaurant concepts exclusively serving poke popping up coast to coast. Poke is on 54% more menus than it was four years ago, but it’s only on 2% of menus nationwide, according to Chicago-based foodservice research firm Datassential. The company also reports that 13% of consumers have tried poke and another 24% said they would like to.
David Arias, executive chef at Oceana Poke, New York, says people are drawn to poke for several reasons. First, it’s considered a healthy meal option that has fresh, unadulterated
ingredients. Second, it’s viewed as a complete meal, with a protein, starch and vegetables, as well as various textural toppings. Third, it’s an interactive event that gives control to customers, allowing them to build their own poke bowls for a snack, lunch or dinner. Finally, it’s perceived as a good value for the amount of food ordered.
Chicago, considered a steak-and-potatoes kind of town, is beginning to see more poke outposts. FireFin Poké Shop, the city’s first freestanding poke restaurant, has five locations in the downtown area. It features 10 different predetermined FireFin Creations poke bowls and a build-your-own custom poke bowl option. Aloha Poke, opened in March 2016, has four locations, with plans to open 14 more in the Chicago market.
New York has more than a dozen poke restaurants. And in California, poke has been a mainstay on menus for years.
AhiPoki Bowl, ranked in the 1,168 spot for emerging chains in the country by Chicago-based Technomic, opened its first location in Temple City, California, in December 2015. It now has 14 locations in Southern California, Northern California and the greater Phoenix metro area, with plans to open 11 more locations in California, Arizona and Seattle in 2017.
“We want to make poke a mainstream food within the quick- service market,” says Jason Jantzen, co-owner. “Poke is aligned with customers’ desire to eat healthier. We meet that expectation and fall in line with many other quick-service restaurants serving vegetable-focused items.”
Jantzen also believes that people who enjoy eating sushi are accepting poke as a favorable alternative. Poke elevates the flavor experience when the raw seafood is combined with a sauce and paired with vegetables, textural toppings and finishing sauces at an affordable price point in a more casual dining environment. Poke bowls range in price between $15 and $20.
All poke shops are designed in a similar format that allows customers to choose ingredients to create unique poke bowls. Customers first pick a base, then a protein and a marinade/sauce that’s tossed together. The seasoned protein is placed on top of the base, and the bowl is finished with vegetables, toppings and a second sauce.
Ingredients and preparation vary, but a bowl usually features a base of brown rice, white rice, quinoa, soba noodles or greens; a protein of yellowfin tuna, ahi tuna, bluefin tuna, spicy tuna, salmon, scallops, shrimp, tofu, grilled chicken or poached octopus; vegetables such as seaweed, edamame, bean sprouts, cucumbers and avocado; toppings of crispy garlic, hazelnuts, tortilla strips, sesame seeds and puffed rice; and a finishing sauce, with a choice that includes the house specialty, garlic/ soy mirin, spicy mayonnaise, kimchi, avocado wasabi, ponzu, cilantro mayonnaise, yuzu aioli and white soy sauce.
Some shops also feature poke rolls, which include all of the ingredients that go into a bowl but wrapped in roasted seaweed. And each shop usually offers several house poke bowls. “Having a few house bowl choices takes away the guesswork for someone not familiar with how to pick ingredients and assemble a poke bowl,” says Arias. “The next time that customer comes in, he or she may feel more adventurous and create their own.”
Three house bowls are offered at Aloha Poke that all start with a choice of a base and protein. The Aloha adds pineapple, cucumber, scallion, jalapeño pepper, Maui onion and sesame vinaigrette; The Volcano, seaweed, edamame, jalapeño pepper, ginger, orange and black tobiko and Volcano sauce (chili/ponzu mayonnaise); and The Crunch, jalapeño pepper, cucumber, scallion, edamame, tobiko, spicy crunch, spicy aioli and sweet- and-savory samurai sauce.
Poke is attracting a range of age groups. “We’ve noticed our demographic has changed from being the health-conscious YogaFit-goers to a younger crowd, as well as enticing older guests,” says Zach Friedlander, Aloha Poke’s co-founder/operating partner. “We feel the uptick is due to a desire for unprocessed foods and good value for the amount of food received.”
While raw seafood is the primary ingredient, poke can go beyond that. For example, grilled chicken and poached octopus appeal to diners who want their protein cooked. Uncooked organic tofu is also popular. “You need to have more options other than raw fish, because you will exclude a certain segment of people from ever entering your restaurant,” Arias says. “Those diners might change their mind on a future visit, be adventurous and order a bowl with raw seafood.”
Eric Rivera, executive chef at The Bookstore Bar & Café, Seattle, decided to put poke on the menu because he wanted to have items that tell stories related to the nationalities of the restaurant’s cooks. Two of his chefs are from Hawaii, so poke made sense. “I want my cooks to play an active role in menu development,” he says. “We’ll think about how the recipes can be presented with a modern approach, particularly for the dinner menu, but still be recognizable by guests.”
Tombo tuna poke is not served in a bowl piled high with ingredients, but it delivers traditional poke flavor. Rivera’s recipe is a refined approach that features cured tombo tuna, rice crackers, seaweed crackers, chili oil, green chili sauce, Fresno chili tips, kewpie and salt water cure, all composed on a plate.
To add a bit of texture and bite to the tuna, it’s diced, cured with a 7% salt water solution for 20 minutes, rinsed off, air-dried in the cooler for two hours and portion-packed in sealed containers for service. “I don’t want the tuna to sit too long in the marinade, because it would turn into a ceviche and be too firm,” Rivera says. “But I feel that curing the tuna prior to assembling the recipe adds a textural element, plus, the cure serves as the sauce.”
For lunch, Rivera menus a traditional version, a poke bowl that features cured tuna, jasmine rice, forbidden rice, wild rice, seasonal pickled vegetables, green onion and sesame/ginger sauce. “The challenging aspects of making poke is ensuring the highest-quality seafood is available to use, breaking the seafood down, cutting ingredients into the same size and having consistency,” he says.
“Preparing poke is a bigger conversation than preparing a salad or steak entree, because we’re working with many ingredients that need to complement each other, not only in taste, but in presentation, too.”
William Middleton, executive chef at Oceans 234, Deerfield Beach, Florida, compares poke in Hawaii to hamburgers on the mainland. “It can be found everywhere,” he says. “Poke’s even available at gas stations.”
Oceans 234 features Atlantic bluefin tuna steak as an entree. Each steak yields about 3 ounces of trim that’s used to make a poke bowl for the lunch menu.
“I like the simplicity of poke, so we don’t get fancy,” Middleton says. The recipe features tuna, diced cucumber, diced mango, chopped macadamia nuts and ponzu sauce served with deep-fried plantain chips in a half coconut shell.
“People gravitate toward poke because it’s viewed as being a healthy item that does not include processed items. Our recipe doesn’t even include a starch,” Middleton says. “It’s also more inviting compared to sushi or sashimi, because there are many other components served with the seafood.”
Ricardo Jarquin, chef de cuisine at Travelle Kitchen + Bar, Chicago, uses white soy sauce in his ahi poke bowl to retain the tuna’s deep-red color. A colored sauce, he says, would turn the tuna a different color and make it look unappetizing. “Also, the basis of a good poke is the quality of the fish, so you don’t want to overshadow the fish with a lot of ingredients or heavy sauces. You just want to enhance the natural flavor of the seafood.”
His basic poke recipe, made tableside, is ahi tuna, white soy sauce, sambal, sesame oil, Hawaiian red alaea salt, scallions and cipollini onions. It is served with pork rind for a crunchy textural element and as a means of scooping up the poke. Jarquin likes white soy for its strong umami flavor.
Rob Benes is a Chicago-based hospitality industry writer. Contact him at email@example.com.