By Justin Dolezal, Foodable Contributor
One of, if not the biggest, trends in Los Angeles dining this year has been the proliferation of poke, a traditional Hawaiian appetizer consisting of raw tuna, seaweed, soy and sesame sauce, and other spices and accompaniments. Though poke is a concept that has existed on the fringes of American dining for decades and in Hawaiian cuisine seemingly forever, it's poke's emergence as a player in the fast-casual dining world that has made consumers and industry players take note. Fast-casual poke spots have been popping up in Los Angeles on what seems to be a weekly basis, and their popularity indicates that the trend isn't likely to slow down anytime soon.
Chef Eric Park, a rising star in the LA food scene, has recently opened Ohana Poke Co. locations in both Downtown's beautiful Historic Core and in recently-food-trendy Silverlake. The Silverlake location is particularly noteworthy, as it has taken the place of Park's previous fine dining restaurant Black Hogg. Though Black Hogg was critically lauded and beloved by those in the neighborhood, Park chose to close Black Hogg in order to pursue a fast-casual agenda with the space. Park split the restaurant space into two concepts, opening Ohana Poke Co. along with Sopressata, a more casual extension of Black Hogg. The former, however, is the restaurant creating the buzz, as Ohana combines a hot dining concept in a trend-focused city with a fast-casual model that consumers are excited about. The result is a pair of dining gems that are poised to become dining hot spots in their respective neighborhoods.
Poke has its roots in traditional Hawaiian fish salad, an appetizer often served as a light alternative to heavier fare. It wouldn't be off base to call poke the quintessential Hawaiian dish — fresh caught seafood, marinated and spiced with a variety of ingredients that reflect the island’s diverse population. Traditional Hawaiian inamona (ground candlenuts and salt), Japanese furikake (a spice mixture containing ground fish, seaweed, sesame seeds, sugar, and salt), and Indonesian Sambal chili sauce are all popular ingredients. Though distinctly Hawaiian, poke has much in common with classic Latin American Ceviche and French Beef Tartare, making it recognizable to diners from many culinary backgrounds. This familiarity has certainly been part of the reason that poke has gone from relative dining obscurity to wide popularity in recent years.
Poke's emergence as a cuisine of choice for fast-casual restauranteurs is hardly surprising. The millennial diners who fuel a large part of the food industry are increasingly on the lookout for quick, healthy food options that give consumers a range of options in terms of styles and flavors. It's the Chipotle effect on full display, and poke fits the bill perfectly. A modern poke bowl consists of a mix of ingredients that can be freshly prepared and then assembled into a whole quickly, making the dish ideal for those short on time. Though raw tuna is the traditional base of the dish, salmon, octopus and even tofu can be substituted, and restaurants often offer the option of seared or cooked proteins. Rice, seaweed, and other vegetables can also be subbed in or out, providing a range of flavor choices for selective eaters. Finally, poke provides a light, healthy alternative to heavier meat or carb-based dining choices. The heart and brain health benefits of oily fish such as tuna and salmon are well known to increasingly health-conscious millennial diners. Poke is also vegetable heavy and, though soy sauce is generally used, achieves a wide range of delicious flavors through spices other than salt.
The Ohana Concept
Ohana Poke Co. combines a traditional, Japanese-inspired version of poke with fast-casual dining tenets to create a fantastic fast-casual dining option. A typical menu is not presented — rather, diners are offered a “How to Order” sheet, presenting them with the options necessary to create their own personal poke bowl. Regular and large-sized options are available, along with a base option of white or brown sushi rice, or olive oil kale for diners wishing to avoid carbs altogether. Next is the choice of poke. All of Ohana's poke is made from wild caught, sustainably sourced, sashimi grade bigeye tuna. Ohana offers Ohana Shoyu (a traditional, soy-marinated poke), Spicy Tuna (mayo-based and rubbed with a house blend of spices), and Sweet Unagi (a sweet and savory blend). There are also gluten-free options, including Chili Mango and Shiso Radish, and a gluten-free/vegan option based around soy ginger tofu. Diners are then offered a choice of sides, including wakame (seaweed) salad, kimchi cucumbers (a fermented food option that further appeals to health-conscious diners), and ponzu crunchy glass noodles. Customers can also add masago (roe) or avocado for an additional fee. Unless specified, all bowls are topped with scallions, edamame, wasabi peas, and furikake, the aforementioned fish spice seasoning that is a staple of traditional poke. Items such as spam musubi and shrimp chips are also available, adding an extra splash of Hawaiian authenticity to the dish.
Ohana Poke Co. is riding a wave of poke enthusiasm that has washed through Los Angeles, and is doing the concept in a way that modern diners will find hard to resist. If more places follow in Ohana's steps, poke's rise should continue from Los Angeles, sweeping through the fast-casual dining scene altogether.