Three things no Hawaiian vacation should end without: a mai tai buzz, a mild sunburn, and a taste of poke (pronounced POH-kay). Made from cubed, marinated raw fish, the refreshing sashimi-style salad is among the islands’ most iconic dishes. Although its lineage can be traced to the days before Captain Cook, modern recipes reflect Hawaii’s position at the culinary crossroads of the Pacific.
In the South Bay’s inland cities—hubs of the Hawaiian expat community—one can find stellar examples of the dish everywhere, from the retro coffee shop inside Gardena Bowl to Poke Etc., next to a Filipino convenience store. Recently, though, the snack has caught the eye of mainstream L.A. chefs, who see poke’s market potential in a town that loves raw fish.
“It feels light and healthy, but it packs so much flavor,” says Ari Ka-han, co-owner of the two-month-old Mainland Poke Shop on West 3rd Street, who partnered with former BOA executive sous-chef Kayson Chong after an inspiring Hawaiian holiday. Their laid-back operation offers a mix-and-match menu featuring inventive ingredients like Thai chili-coconut sauce and crushed kuku’i nuts.
Poke’s customizability makes it ideal for the fast-casual market. At Spinfish Poke House in Pasadena, customers can trick out their tuna- or salmon-topped rice bowls with Maui onion, flying-fish roe, and dried seaweed furikake. A similar build-your-own model lures diners to newcomers such as Glendale’s Poke N Roll, Jus’ Poke in Redondo Beach, and Poke Bar in Hollywood.
“Poke is a dish you can take to another level without losing the simplicity of it,” says Dakota Weiss. The former Top Chef contestant teamed with restaurateur Alan Nathan in April to open Santa Monica’s Sweetfin Poké, which specializes in colorful combinations like spicy yuzu salmon with edamame, and albacore with mango, ginger, and macadamia nuts. “Fish lends itself well to almost every flavor, so it’s easy to blow your guest’s socks off with just a small twist.”