We don’t always get the latest and greatest food trends, but poke is having its moment in the South Sound.
Three restaurants focused on the raw fish dish have opened in recent months. More restaurants than ever are serving poke, pronounced poh-kay.
Diners can pick up a bowl or plate of the cubed raw fish from Tacoma to Fife to Bonney Lake. Even a grocery store in Tacoma has it.
The traditional Hawaiian dish can be served a number of ways, but in its most simple form, it’s cubed raw fish tossed in a soy-based sauce.
Breaking down the recent South Sound trend, a few styles of poke emerge.
The first are assembled poke bowls, with mix-and-match ingredients, that turn poke into a highly customized experience with as many crunchy vegetables, tangy sauces and fishy add-ins as a diner would like. That’s been the biggest area of growth.
There also is a more straightforward style of poke served in the Hawaiian tradition as a simplified style of a Hawaiian plate lunch served with rice and salad.
With last month’s opening of downtown Tacoma’s Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max, the South Sound now sports two Hawaiian restaurants offering poke. Those restaurants also offer broader menus of Hawaiian plate lunches, musubi and other island favorites. (I don’t write much about national chains, but there are outposts of Hawaiian chain L&L in Tacoma and Lakewood.)
There are a lot of good reasons to eat the dish. Without the addition of mayo-based sauces, poke can yield modest calories, lean protein and healthy fiber. Health experts tout the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish.
There also is a solid reason to avoid the dish. People with a compromised immune system or pregnant women should eschew raw fish because of the risk of foodborne illness.
But here’s a sliver of great news for anyone who must eat their fish cooked. Nearly every poke restaurant offered fully cooked items for its poke bowls and plates.
Here’s a tour of Hawaiian delights, just in time for warm weather dining:
Aloha Poke and Shaved Ice (Note: This restaurant has changed its name to Poke Pop)
2013 Mildred St. W., Fircrest; 253-565-2393.
Aloha Poke opened April 3, by brother-sister owners Kevin Chung and Esther Sung, on the edge of Fircrest near Tacoma Community College. It’s a casual restaurant similar to Chipotle Grill in style and assembly, just swap poke bowls for Mexican. All they serve is poke and shaved ice.
Staffers help diners build poke bowls from a choice of five fish (plus unagi and tofu), an array of crunchy vegetables, brown or white rice, seaweed, fish eggs, sauces, and other crunchy or flavor-packed add-ins. It’s fast food style with counter ordering.
Best for: Big bowls, lots of vegetables, few upcharges, customization.
Bowl pricing: 1 fish, $9.99; two fish, $10.99; three fish, $11.99.
Poke selection: Raw tuna or salmon or fully cooked shrimp, unagi, scallop or a tofu option.
Base add-ins include brown or white rice, or skip the rice and get mixed greens.
Vegetable add-ins, in unlimited quantity, include edamame, cucumber, seaweed salad, dried seaweed, ginger, onions, jalapeños, red onions, masago (fish eggs), corn, chopped surimi (krab). Sliced avocado or cooked-and-chilled octopus salad for a $1 upcharge.
Get: Ahi tuna or salmon with the basic poke sauce (the creamy-spicy version muddied the fish flavor). Vegetables were snappy and fresh and in unlimited supplies, if desired. Be sure to get the edamame and masago. Avocado and chilled, cooked octopus salad are worth the $1 upcharge each.
Happy Teriyaki No. 4
2223 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-272-1544; thehappyteriyaki.com (other locations in Fife and Parkland).
I’ve enjoyed watching poke bowl options expand since downtown Tacoma’s Happy Teriyaki began offering those alongside sushi burritos last year. The tiny casual restaurant, which offers table service, offers a simple mix-and-match poke menu where diners select a base rice or salad, fish, a choice of four vegetable/fruit toppings, a crunchy topper and a sauce.
Best for: Easy customization, plus best selection of sauces.
Bowl pricing: $10.95 regular, $12.95 large.
Poke selection: Raw salmon or tuna, plus fully cooked unagi (eel). The base includes white or brown rice, or a salad. Vegetable add-ins include up to four choices, and there’s avocado or octopus salad at no extra charge, plus masago, jalapeño, mango, corn, edamame, seaweed salad, pickled cucumber, pickled ginger, fried salmon skin and krab salad. Crunchy toppers include trendy add-ins of corn flakes, nuts or tortilla chips. I skipped those because they just distract from my fish mission. Sauce choices are plentiful here with a poke, spicy mayo, ponzu, sweet chili paste, garlic poke or spicy shoyu.
Get: Ahi tuna with basic poke sauce, which was among the best of the straightforward poke preparations. Mango was squishy. Skip pickled cucumbers that weren’t pickled at all. Opt for the edamame, seaweed salad or krab salad, and absolutely do not miss the avocado or octopus salad. Salmon poke was perfect with a tart ponzu sauce. Spicy mayo packed good flavor, but lots of calories.
20649 State Route 410 E., Bonney Lake; 253-750-3789; trapuritos.com.
East Pierce’s newest raw fish destination for sushi burritos and poke is in the original location of Trapper’s Sushi, owned by the same company and moved to a bigger location across the parking lot. Trapurito’s opened in November. Bowls and their ingredients are preset, which means Trapurito’s is less about customization. Staffers said some substitutions are allowed.
Best for: Spice seekers and tuna lovers.
Bowl pricing: $12-$14.
Poke selection: Raw tuna, yellowtail tuna or salmon (no cooked options listed, but the restaurant does have cooked options of shrimp, scallops and krab salad). All bowls come with rice and slaw on top, spicy poke sauce (that’s the only sauce choice) and a mix of vegetables for each of the three versions.
Get: Tuna poke bowl with a modest layer of white rice, fresh sliced avocado, salty marinated cucumbers and big cubes of fresh fish. Skip the slaw and carrots. The vegetables in the slaw mix carried a stale flavor and texture that sullied the dish. Salmon was equally fresh fish with snappy edamame beans, cilantro and yuzu tobiko fish eggs. Again, skip the off-tasting slaw and carrots.
Note: The poke sauce was spicy enough to leave me choking. I asked a kitchen staffer, and he said it normally is not overly spicy, but I got the end of the bottle, with concentrated spicing. Spice haters should avoid.
2420 N. Proctor St., Tacoma; 253-761-3663; metropolitan-market.com.
Yes, even grocery stores have poke. This build-your-own bowl counter at Proctor’s Metropolitan Market has a smaller assortment of vegetables, but goes big on choices of fish.
Best for: In-and-out dining, heavy customization.
Bowl pricing: $15.99 a pound. My small $9 bowl was about half the size of the competition. This was the most expensive stop.
Poke selection: Raw salmon, ahi and spicy ahi poke. Shrimp ceviche. Fully cooked shrimp-mango, garlic-shrimp and octopus salads. Add-ins were limited fo four: mango, cold sushi rice, kimchi and seaweed salad.
Get: Ahi with onions and poke sauce, spicy ahi, salmon and mango-shrimp salad were outstanding. Add-ins were not. Rice is expensive at the $15.99 a pound rate, so add sparingly. I wanted greens, edamame, any other kind of vegetables. This destination can’t be beat for expediency, as you build your own bowl and can be out in less than 5 minutes with no lines.
Da Tiki Hut
4427 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-625-7690; bit.ly/2qlwSaU.
Steve and Tamara Lerma operate the delightfully sunny Sixth Avenue restaurant. They opened in 2014 and have been the sole locally owned Hawaiian restaurant until recently. The dining room offers table service, comfortable and spacious seating and an island-themed cocktail menu.
Best for: Full-deal Hawaiian restaurant with excellent table service, fair prices, cocktails.
Poke: Spicy or regular ahi tuna, $7.50.
On the plate: Both versions served with rice and seaweed salad.
Get: It doesn’t matter, both tasted terrific. My preference skews simple for sushi and poke, which is why I thought Da Tiki Hut’s plain ahi was the best for boosting the flavor of the fish instead of complicated add-ins. Both ahi poke versions were built simply with finely minced red onions, a bit of fish roe and vivid cubes of fresh ahi.
The spicy version was served with a loose creamy dressing tweaked with chile sauce. The regular version tasted of soy and sesame.
Also serving: The greatest hits of island dining, plus cocktails (the only one on this tour with a booze list). Plate lunches with rice and mac salad and a choice of tiki chicken, Korean chicken or kalua pig ($6.50-$8.50); five versions of a loco moco plate, some with the traditional hamburger patty, and served with fried egg, rice and gravy ($7.50-$10.25); Hawaiian-themed sandwiches and burgers ($5-$7.25) and four kinds of musubi, the spam-filled sushi roll ($2 each).
Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max
1716 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-627-4099; samchoyspoke.com.
Sam Choy is a chef and a brand name for Hawaiian cuisine in the islands. And with the help of family friend and business partner Max Heigh, three roving food trucks and one brick-and-mortar restaurant operate in Seattle. Downtown Tacoma’s branch opened April 12 with a small, modern dining room offering high-top communal seating and limited tables for two.
Best for: On-the-fly downtown dining and robust Hawaiian menu.
Poke: Served as rice plates ($9.99-$11.99), tacos and nachos ($11.99), salad and wraps ($12.99).
Poke selection: Raw ahi tuna or salmon or fully cooked octopus, plus tofu. Sauce flavors are classic shoyu, traditional sea salt, ponzu, chili-mango, spicy and sweet onion. All poke can be served lightly seared or fully cooked. Plates come with two scoops white or brown rice, mixed greens, pickled ginger, pickled carrots, cucumbers and seaweed salad.
Get: My preference is the classic shoyu sauce and ahi, a copious pile of raw tuna dressed in sesame oil and shoyu. The traditional ahi with sea salt was another favorite for purists. Ask for extra pickled carrots and cucumbers. Undressed greens on the poke plates proved perplexing — ask for extra ponzu? Keep it simple here because the more exotic sounding the sauce, the more muted I found the flavor of salmon and tuna.
Also serving: A broad menu of Hawaiian hits, including loco moco ($9.99); plate lunches with rice and mac salad (short ribs, katsu, kalua pork and more options, $9.99-$11.99); Spam or five other kinds of oversize musubi ($7.99-$11.99).
A DISH HERE OR THERE
Here are other restaurants to find poke:
At Pacific Grill, tuna or salmon poke has been served on-and-off for years as an appetizer served on a spoon. Its current version is made with salmon.
Social Bar and Grill has offered the dish since its 2011 opening. The current version is cubed raw ahi served with wonton chips.
Ram locations serve ahi poke nachos, with cubed tuna served atop crispy wontons. C.I. Shenanigan’s serves its version with sriracha and crispy wontons.