Poke doesn’t have to be pretty or lathered in aioli or served with house-made chips.
But much like a plate lunch in Maui, combine any or all of the above with the traditional Hawaiian dish, and it becomes essentially a raw fish salad, elevated to more palatable heights.
Despite two trips to Hawaii over the past decade (one to get married, the other to celebrate being married for 10 years), I had not achieved an “aha” moment with this ahi until our last day of the last trip, on the way to the airport, no less.
At Eskimo Candy, a tiny seafood market and deli in Kihei, Maui, the poke (pronounced po-kay) bowls are nearly leaden in weight yet light in flavor, offering four different tastes of tuna — one with chile mayo, another with wasabi, the third in shoyu (soy) and the fourth marinated in seaweed furikake — atop a seaweed salad.
It was the opposite of tough, chewy fish and, really, the stuff of dreams: The tuna virtually melted on the tongue.
Why the tease, mentioning a place that’s roughly a nine-hour airplane ride away? Because one step inside Ahi Poke Bowl in Arlington, an 8-month-old spot a block north of The Parks mall, brought back all of those sensations, taste and otherwise. Owner Khang Vo even has a shark mural, just like Eskimo Candy, on his dining-room wall.
The Vietnam native spent many years in Hawaii as a chef and he pays homage to the best-when-delicate dish with his Chipotle-esque counter-service restaurant, where you can order small or large bowls with accouterments including crabmeat, ginger, jalapeños, avocados and masago (orange fish roe).
But the fish is the star here, including three types of ahi (Hawaiian, shoyu and spicy. Vo flies all of his fish in from Hawaii daily, except on the weekend.
When the UPS truck delivers the day’s daily catch, which had been swimming in the Pacific just 24 hours earlier, Vo gets to work, noting in an interview that temperature is key in the process.
“Keeping fish fresh is not easy,” he says.
Vo never uses frozen fish, and it’s evident in how he slices it — no two pieces are the same in size. He must keep it refrigerated 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below at all times.
The result is pretty darn close to what you might get in Hawaii, and people are taking notice. Vo is set to expand his store in the Dallas area shortly (details are still being finalized) and customers are clamoring for the taste sensation. (The original Ahi Poke Bowl is at 3701 S. Cooper St., No. 169, Arlington, 817-200-6418, http://www.ahipokebowl.com, and is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-8 p.m. Sunday.)
But it’s not just Ahi Poke Bowl: Poke is an increasingly popular item on menus around Fort Worth. Food trends are funny, fickle things (Remember the cupcake craze? Or kale-mania?) but when they take hold they grab the diner by the throat and tend not to let go … until the next one comes through the proverbial kitchen pass.
If we’re really getting technical, industry experts say poke is more prevalent because people have long been enamored with Asian food, and poke is just an extension of that. Plus, Hawaii is becoming more of a food destination than ever before.
But back to DFW (again), where more new places are set to open (see sidebar), meaning our restaurant seas may just be teeming with the dish a year from now. Let’s take a look at the current renditions.
Dish: Tuna and shrimp poke ($14)
As if a ramekin was overturned moments before it was served, the sushi-grade tuna is pressed into a mold with diced shrimp, mango, avocado and pine nuts. A pineapple-soy glaze ties it all together.
How it’s served: With house-made kettle chips, salty and crispy, the attractive appetizer hits all the right notes: sweet, savory, salty and addictive. The raw tuna intermingles so well with other ingredients that a prevailing sweetness is the main takeaway.
Dish: Ahi poke taco ($6.75)
Flown in from Hawaii several times a week to Velvet Taco’s distributor, the tuna is “cut into cubes after removing its bloodline, skin and chain,” says Ramona Reyes, assistant marketing manager at Front Burner Restaurants, which owns Velvet Taco. The fish is then dressed to order with a house-made soy-ginger vinaigrette.
Served in an iceberg lettuce cup, it’s lined with a seaweed salad made at the restaurant that contains sesame seeds, sesame oil, rice vinegar, sugar, ginger and cilantro. Avocado goes on next, followed by the tuna, dusted with Himalayan pink sea salt, toasted sesame seeds, pickled Fresno peppers and micro-cilantro.
How it’s served: This is one juicy taco, so much so that it needs to be served in lettuce — a flour or corn tortilla would get soggy in no time. Save the calories and sacrifice a little taste in favor of the lettuce and your taco will at least last while you’re scarfing down the chips and red curry coconut queso.
2700 W. Seventh St., Fort Worth, 817-887-9810, velvettacofw.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-4 a.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-4 a.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-midnight Sunday. Also 3012 N. Henderson Ave. in Dallas.
Dish: Tuna or salmon poke ($9, small; $14, large)
Chef Jesus Garcia bucks convention: Instead of marinating the yellowfin tuna or Pacific coho salmon first, he opts to toss it with whatever sauce you order just before it’s served. The reason? “Certain sauces, particularly with salmon, leach out the oil/fat from the fish, making the flavor more fishy,” he says.
The result is a light iteration, with the condiments more “reminiscent of sushi sauces.” Garcia dices the fish with brunoised cucumber, sweet yellow onion, Hawaiian ogo seaweed, green onion, sesame oil and sea salt. Sauces include chili aioli (ponzu, sambal and mayonnaise); spicy (sesame oil and the Japanese spice shichimi togarashi); wasabi soy (real wasabi flakes marinated for a week with soy sauce and tuna flakes); and citrus soy (soy sauce, rice vinegar and sudachi lime).
How it’s served: Simply. You can choose a base of white or brown rice, salad or fish only; then, choose a sauce. Toppings are extra, and range from 50 cents to $4. They include: avocado, carrot, flying-fish roe, jalapeño, kimchi, mango, salmon roe or seaweed salad. The a la carte ordering style can yield a humdrum or dynamic bowl — it’s up to you to decide.
2801 W. Seventh St., Fort Worth, 817-882-6554, oniramen.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-4 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Dish: Japanese poke ($12)
Chef Kevin Martinez doesn’t miss out on the poke game either. At the revamped Tokyo Cafe, the popular west Fort Worth restaurant, he includes this small-plates option. Here, the ahi is marinated in a soy vinaigrette and is diced into large cubes.
How it’s served: Elegantly. A clear glass holds this pretty parfait — cucumber slivers on the bottom; shredded crabmeat on top of that; then avocado, which provides a nest for a mound of ahi that’s topped with sesame seeds. The result is a delicate trifle whose ingredients complement — and almost upstage — the tuna.
5121 Pershing Ave., Fort Worth, 817-737-8568, tokyocafefw.net. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, noon-10 p.m. Saturday
HG Sply Co.
Dish: Ahi tuna poke ($16)
HG Sply puts its own spin on poke, as the restaurant likes to do with many of the items on its menu (hello, vegan queso!). The dish here reads more like a salad, with a cucumber-wakame seaweed mix, bathed in Bragg’s Liquid Aminos Vinaigrette. A generous portion of cubed tuna has taken the plunge in a lemony marinade.
How it’s served: Red onion, jalapeños and avocado complete the presentation, adding up to a healthful take — no rice here! — that tastes fabulous, but might be the furthest flight from traditional poke.
1621 River Run, Suite 176, Fort Worth, 682-730-6070, khgsplyco.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday, 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Also 2008 Greenville Ave., Dallas
Ana’s Island Grill
Dish: Poke ($7)
This tiny mom-and-pop, which opened in June 2013, serves authentic Hawaiian and Tongan food. It’s a no-frills plate-lunch place, with a couple of tables for dine-in. The poke — huge chunks of ahi — are marinated in soy. Onion slivers and sesame seeds are mixed in for texture and an extra dose of umami flavor.
How it’s served: Rice is extra; a plastic-foam cup holds the virtually unadorned, but exceedingly authentic, fish.