Raw fish is nothing new, but poke — a hyper-regional Hawaiian dish of diced, uncooked fish with local seasonings — is breaking out from its island base in a big way.
Poke is sweeping the nation, and the dish is showing remarkable versatility as an appetizer, a light meal and even as the basis for entirely new restaurant concepts. The reason for poke’s sudden popularity could be its health halo, or its customizable nature. But there’s no question that at the moment, this raw dish is hot.
“I think there’s a phenomenon going on right now [around poke],” said Carlito Jocson, executive chef of Yard House, a 66-unit casual-dining chain based in Irvine, Calif. “It’s become part of the food culture right now, and something people are really gravitating toward.”
Poke, pronounced PO-keh, is a Hawaiian dish traditionally made by mixing diced, raw tuna with limu seaweed and inamona, a condiment of candlenuts and salt.
Variations of poke have proliferated, and a common modern version in Hawaii is made with tuna, soy sauce, sesame oil, Maui onions, scallions, sesame seeds and sometimes chile flake. Hawaiian supermarkets reportedly stock half a dozen varieties or more, and versions of the dish are proliferating as poke settles into the broader American food culture.
According to menu research firm Datassential, poke is on 54 percent more menus than it was four years ago, but it’s only on 2 percent of menus nationwide. Datassential found that 13 percent of consumers have tried poke, and another 24 percent said they would like to.
The dish is already entrenched in Los Angeles, and Yard House has had a Poke Stack on its menu for 15 years, Jocson said.
The Poke Stack is made with sushi-grade ahi tuna marinated in soy sauce and sambal oelek — a straightforward Indonesian hot sauce of chile, salt and vinegar. The marinated tuna is layered with crisp wonton skins, a salad of julienne radish and carrots in sesame oil, and avocado. The dish is served over a soy-wasabi sauce.
In June, Yard House introduced Poke Nachos, made with the same wonton chips and marinated tuna dressed in three sauces: lemon Sriracha aïoli, a teriyaki-like sweet soy glaze, and aïoli with white truffle oil and a little soy sauce. The nachos are topped with nori seaweed strips, very thinly sliced serrano peppers and green onions, and sesame seeds.
“So it’s got this kind of festival of flavors going on that really keeps your palate entertained from start to finish,” Jocson said.
The nachos were an instant success, and the dish is currently Yard House’s third best-selling appetizer.
Jocson said the popularity of poke is likely due to its freshness and health cues, as well as the dish’s bold flavors.
Poke is also photogenic, noted Andy Duddleston, co-founder and managing partner of The Little Beet, a gluten-free, fast-casual chain of six units, based in New York City.
In fact, the restaurant’s salmon poke bowl is most frequently posted on Instagram by customers, along with the salmon tartare roll.
“We’ve been dong salmon tartare as a roll for a long time, and we kept hearing about poke,” Duddleston said.
The Little Beet introduced the bowl in spring, using a farm-raised salmon from Newfoundland instead of the traditional tuna. The salmon is diced in advance over the course of the day, and the dish is made to order. The fish is dressed in a mixture of tamari, chile-garlic paste, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar and sugar. It is served in a bowl over brown rice, along with a slaw made of wakame seaweed, carrot, cucumber, cabbage and French radishes, and garnished with raw watermelon radish, pickled ginger, salmon and sesame seeds.
“From a labor perspective, we hand-dice all the salmon, so it certainly requires a lot of labor to be able to do that, and it requires a lot of ice to make sure that you keep your salmon sanitary and very cold,” Duddleston said.
At Yard House, Jocson’s team marinates tuna in advance, and makes several batches over the course of the day.
Some restaurants with more involved poke programs have made the dish customizable, such as Coast Grille at Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel on Hawaii’s Big Island.
“We’ve always had a poke of the day, but we introduced our Poke to Taste in July, and it’s been a smashing success,” said Peter Abarcar Jr., Coast Grille director of culinary and beverage operations.
Customers can choose between ahi tuna, wahoo, octopus or tofu topped with up to five items, including onions, scallions, flying fish roe, avocado, sesame seed, green papaya, chiles, seaweed, kale and inamona. Diners can top dishes with wasabi mayonnaise, soy sauce, Sriracha aïoli, salt, a pesto made from the tropical herb malunggay (“It has the brightness of basil without the sweetness, and it’s slightly bitter,” Abarcar said), or a more traditional dressing of soy sauce, sesame oil and a little oyster sauce. The dish is served over a rotating set of options including white rice, quinoa, local greens, somen noodles or sweet potato chips.
The concept of customizable poke has even spawned several new fast-casual restaurant concepts, including Sweetfin Poké, the first unit of which opened in Santa Monica, Calif., in April of 2015. A second location is slated to open in a few weeks, in Topanga, Calif., followed shortly by a unit in the Los Angeles area of Larchmont. The 1,000-square-foot Santa Monica restaurant serves 800 to 900 bowls a day, according to co-founder and co-owner Seth Cohen.
About half of customers build their own poke bowl, Cohen said. They can choose from various fish depending on the season, such as ahi tuna, salmon, snapper or albacore tuna. The fish can be dressed in a lightly spicy, creamy togarashi sauce, a Japanese seasoning called yuzu kosho, ponzu lime or Sriracha ponzu. Toppings include avocado, seaweed, jalapeño, wasabi-toasted coconut flakes, carrots and shiitake mushrooms.
The other half of customers order signature bowls developed by chef Dakota Weiss.
“She put a big emphasis on putting together bowls that have flavors that really pair nicely with one another and balance each other out,” Cohen said.
That includes the Yuzu Salmon poke, made with farm-raised Scottish salmon, avocado, edamame and yuzu kosho.
One of Cohen’s favorites is the mango albacore bowl, which has those ingredients along with ponzu-lime sauce, baby ginger and macadamia nuts.
“You have that nice crunch and richness from the macadamia nuts, sweetness from the mango, slight spiciness of the ginger and the refreshing ponzu lime,” Cohen said.
The most popular poke is Weiss’ version of a Los Angeles classic, the spicy tuna roll, Cohen said. The dish consists of tuna dressed in a mixture of togarashi pepper, Kewpie mayonnaise and chile oil, along with some fish sauce, “so you get a little bit of that funk,” he said.
The fish is diced over the course of the day, and each poke bowl is made to order, “not like traditional poke, where you marinate the fish and have it sitting in a deli counter,” Cohen said, adding that Sweetfin is not trying to be traditional.
“It’s chef-driven, California-inspired poke,” he said.
Poke also has benefits over sushi, Cohen said. “It’s more affordable, it’s more customizable and in many ways it’s healthier [because it doesn’t necessarily come with rice]. And it’s more portable than ordering sushi,” he said.
Going against tradition
Tradition is also not what chef and founder Alan Jackson has in mind with the poke he serves at 24-unit Lemonade, also based in Los Angeles.
The poke combines diced ahi tuna with chunks of avocado and tangerine. The dish is mixed with icicle radish and sesame seeds.
“The citrus kind of cuts the denseness of the fish, and avocado I can’t pass up anywhere,” said marketing director JoAnn Cianciulli, who co-wrote the Lemonade cookbook with Jackson.
“It’s been wildly popular,” Cianciulli said. “It’s one of the dishes that I think if we dared take it off the menu we’d get some mail.”
Local skipjack tuna is used in the poke at Sunny’s at The Hall South Beach hotel in Miami Beach, Fla., where the menu is inspired by years of visiting beaches by celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn and his friend of more than 15 years, Mike Colletti, who is executive chef of The Hall.
Their Head High Poké Bowl combines the flavors of Miami and Hawaii, Colletti said.
Skipjack is dressed to order in a blend of soy, ginger, Maui onion, sesame oil and a little chile oil. The poke is served in a pint container, as it often is in Hawaii, but over rice that has been steeped in coconut milk, ginger and a little kosher salt.
The rice is topped with shaved asparagus, Florida avocado, and pickled daikon and carrot. The mixture is topped with tuna, flash-fried puffed rice and toasted sesame seeds.
“It’s one of the top sellers on the menu,” Colletti said. “It’s really fresh, really cooling.”
The Head High Poké Bowl has been so popular that Colletti has three more poke bowls on the docket for the next menu change. The Pulpo Tako Poké will have marinated, grilled octopus with cucumber, tomato, ginger and soy sauce over jasmine rice. The Tof-oké will be a vegetarian fried sesame tofu with cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon, and radish over ginger rice.
There will also be a Jamaican-inspired poke with ahi tuna, spicy Jamaican curry, Red Stripe-braised greens, coconut ginger rice and crushed peanuts.
In a nod to another trend sweeping the nation, the dish will be called the Poké Mon.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: Aug. 22, 2016 An earlier version of this article misspelled Andy Duddleston’s last name.