If there’s a restaurant trend over the past year or so that’s stronger than the move to vegan/plant based food, it’s poke bowls.
These restaurants are popping up everywhere, offering variations on the Hawaiian marinated raw fish and rice bowl that is a great alternative to sushi if your wallet’s kind of thin. We’ve gone from zero to 15 at least now, and one may have opened since you started reading this column.
I’m not gonna say these two I’m gonna write about today are the best, because I haven’t been to all of them in our fair city, but these are my favorites in this crowded field: Killer Poke downtown really close to Cafe Smitten in Eastchester and Poke Luau (formerly Poke To Me) in the Frugatti’s shopping center. They both offer different things that to me make them worth your money, and in my visits have offered exceptionally fresh seafood in tasty ways.
First some background for those unfamiliar with poke, which is correctly pronounced po-kay, just like pho is not pronounced how it looks. It’s from a Hawaiian word and means cut into chunks. Having been to Hawaii many times where you can build a bowl in the grocery store, I thought it originated there but Guide Michelin told me that the very first poke restaurant is Pololi, still open in the Kar Ho Building in Hong Kong and offering 15 flavors of marinated fish. Though on the islands they mostly use tuna and octopus, it originated with native Hawaiian fisherman taking smaller reef fish, cutting them up and serving them with whatever is at hand, not necessarily in a restaurant. Our California version has evolved, as you can imagine, to include things like avocado, unmarinated fish and all sorts of tempting offerings.
There are plenty of options at Killer Poke downtown. You get in line as at Chipotle and customize the bowl to your liking. You start with a base: spring mix salad, brown rice, white rice and cauliflower rice, which is unique for poke spots. Now I’m not doing that keto thing, but if you were avoiding carbs, choosing this last option is a real winner. It’s perfect for a poke bowl.
They offer two sizes: cups (one base, one protein and five sides plus toppings) at $7.99 or bowls for $13. I like that. Protein options included three cooked (shrimp, calamari salad and smoked salmon) if you dislike the texture of raw fish. Diners can also choose from chicken, chopped hard-boiled egg and, for vegetarians, portobello mushrooms as options.
I ordered a cooked shrimp cup and my companion got the third option they offer, killer tuna tacos ($10). And they do make their own desserts, but since the lunch crowd had cleaned them out all that was left were chocolate chip cookies and German chocolate cake ($3). We got the latter and did not regret it.
The tacos were amazing, three flour tortillas with raw tuna and cabbage and (this was the key to me) a light drizzle of aioli and on the side a choice of either pico de gallo or mango sauce. Too many places that offer fish tacos glop the white sauce on and that’s all you taste. Here, the kitchen understands balance. The tuna was fresh and not marinated in advance, which was perfect. The shrimp in my cup was just as fresh, though I must warn you I had to pay an extra $2 for avocado with the cucumbers, carrots, crispy garlic, pineapple and green onion. Considering the cauliflower rice, I’ll forgive them. There seems to be a greater choices of sauces here too (four mild, four medium and three spicy), and they do offer Stubborn Soda, that trendy cane sugar product. The cake was definitely amazing with a thick coconut pecan frosting on top. Don’t visit here and skip dessert. The meal is healthy enough.
The atmosphere is another plus, with a lot of glass block on the wall in the narrow dining room, a surfboard here and there and other stylish touches. It’s not out of place for this up and coming part of downtown. Very tasteful, like Smitten. The restaurant is owned by Theresa Gerber and Joy Howard.
Meanwhile, Poke Luau operates out of a small storefront just north of Frugatti’s with a red-and-white tile color scheme and very inexpensive bowls. Its base options include white sushi rice, for which I give them points. Protein options are tuna, spicy tuna, salmon, spicy shrimp and crab and aloha tofu. A scoop of crab is offered free for all customers, which earns them another point. Four sauces follow: volcano, ponzu, Maui and garlic ponzu. I can’t get past garlic ponzu, which makes everything taste good. Then on to toppings which include the always amazing crispy garlic, green onions, fresh ginger and white and black sesame seeds, followed by your topping sauce (lava, spicy mayo or eel sauce). I skip that last step as I find it overkill.
Free miso soup if you want. That earns them another loyalty point. On our recent visit my companion got the salmon ($7.85) and I got the spicy tuna ($7.85), jazzed up and customized and more than enough for a healthy dinner. I mean, really, at this price you get quality food for what you pay for Chipotle or a value meal? Such a deal. Very clean place, too, though my companion was put off by the scent of a chemical cleaner. It was at night, so I’m glad they cleaned up after the lunch crowd.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.