Why you should care
Fresh raw fish, plus sauces and veggies — what’s not to love?
Video by Tom Gorman
The line snakes through the door at Sweetfin Poké, in Santa Monica, all of the customers here for one thing: a bite of the latest food trend, which hails from the big 5-0. Hawaii.
It’s called poke (po-kay). For $7 to $14, you get a bowl with about 5 ounces of fresh, raw fish, diced into big blocks, mixed with sauces, topped with ingredients like avocado or furikake (a seaweed seasoning) and placed atop a base of rice, noodles or salad. Like choose-your-own frozen yogurt shops, poke shops subscribe to a democratic ideology. Options reign. “I see poke as having the potential to be the next Chipotle,” says Zach Brooks, a food blogger at Midtown Lunch. “It’s a faster, cheaper, more acceptable, more filling way to deliver raw fish.”
It’s convenient and quick; you can be in and out of a poke shop in 15 to 20 minutes.
Unlike the dead Facebook interaction the poke, poke is riding a wave and swimming onto more mainland menus. Technomic’s MenuMonitor database says poke is about 35 percent more prevalent over the past five years. In California, poke is easier to find than in other parts of the U.S., like Illinois or New York. In 2014, Stefanie Honda was spurred to open Jus’ Poke — whose menu lives up to its name — after she traveled 30 miles from LA’s South Bay to find poke, which she grew up making with her father and grandfather. Now there are dozens of shops in LA that sell the Hawaiian equivalent of a burrito bowl. One reason: You don’t need cooking appliances, Brooks says.
So why are people gulping it down now? It’s convenient and quick; you can be in and out of a poke shop in 15 to 20 minutes depending on the rush. Plus, for fast food, it’s devoid of hamburger grease. According to market research firm IBISWorld, seafood’s profile is rising as diners latch onto fish’s nutritional value. At Poke-Poke in Venice Beach, where customers are learning to pronounce the word correctly, general manager Maiya Livas says customers are “leaning in” to the idea of eating sashimi-like fish, not just the measly scraps in sushi. And this Hawaiian food wave may not have crested yet. The next big thing could be Hawaiian chicken or Spam musubi, a finger food made of Spam, seaweed and rice. Honda thinks it might jibe with LA palates, even if it is unhealthy.
Brooks, however, isn’t so sure: Poke on the mainland is not the most authentic example of Hawaiian food you can get. Plus, while sushi is already extremely popular in LA, it may be hard to get less historically interested eaters in other parts of the world chomping down on raw fish. In these spots, it’s also typically harder to find inexpensive, high-quality fresh fish. So the question now: Will this big fish in a small pond find a chain that’ll get poke flipping its fins to other places?