Its owners say that it’s the first build-your-own-poke bowl restaurant in Texas.
That’s a lofty, perhaps unsubstantiated claim, but I’ll do them one better: The poke at Ahi Poke Bowl in Arlington is just as good as any I ate last summer — in Maui.
Khang Vo, from Vietnam but more recently, Waikiki, Oahu, runs the small 2-month-old storefront off Cooper Street and just north of The Parks at Arlington (along with partner Ronnie Lee) with a smooth, winning efficiency, employing his family to man the counter. They can be seen periodically refreshing the small portions of marinated raw tuna and salmon with a frequency that seemingly answers the question before you ask: Is this fish fresh?
The answer is an emphatic yes, as are all of the ingredients that make up the bowls, from the ginger to the jalapeños, green onions to pineapple and cucumber. But more on that later.
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Vo and Co. make the ordering process easy on first-timers, an assured sign from the veteran chef. Line up at the chalkboard, and follow the three-step ordering process.
Step one: Pick a size and base, which means a regular ($8.50) or large bowl ($10.95), and a base of white or brown rice, salad or a mix of both. I chose brown rice and salad, which was a simple iceberg mix.
Step two — pick your poke (pronounced po-kay) — means a choice of four proteins. Regular portions get two scoops of fish, while the large portion gets three scoops. Choices include three types of ahi tuna (Hawaiian, shoyu and spicy), salmon (regular or spicy), popcorn shrimp and fried salmon. Vo eschews frozen fish, sacrificing any potential profit margin to give customers a first-rate experience.
As a result, the fish is diced but not in robotic, perfunctory pieces — that would only be possible if it were previously frozen, Vo says. Sliced his way, the Hawaiian ahi almost seemed to digest the sesame oil, soy sauce and assorted spices. The result was sweet and flavorful — and an ideal complement to the other components in the bowl.
Step three: Add toppings, of which you can get up to five. A scoop of luscious crabmeat was just that. Thinly sliced and mixed with mayo, it had an almost buoyant, lighter-than-air quality. Seaweed salad, ginger, jalapeños and avocado beckoned, yielding a little acid, tartness, richness and heat. Other options include green or red onion, cucumbers, pineapple and masago (orange fish roe).
Ponzu sauce and spicy mayo are offered when you’re at the register, plus a sprinkling of sesame seeds for even more texture and earthiness.
Ahi Poke Bowl offers a kids bowl ($6). (The popcorn shrimp and fried salmon are more palatable to a younger set — and those who don’t eat raw fish — yet another wise move from management.)
Heads down and unwaveringly, we scooped up various bites from our bowls, a little jalapeño on top of avocado over spicy salmon (heaven); a chopsticks bite of seaweed salad and nutty, fluffy brown rice plus ginger (wow!).
But our understated meal was not over. Vo’s wife makes homemade desserts, including miraculous macarons ($2.50) in flavors like s’mores and green tea, and a blueberry Japanese mousse ($3.50) — a disturbingly delicious cup of cheesecake-like flavors. The tart blueberries and dusting of cornmeal at the bottom nearly started a skirmish at the table — until I bought another one.
A simple concept, executed well with fresh flavors, Ahi Poke Bowl is about as elegant as you can get in a small, fast-food-like set-up that has a giant shark mural on its wall.
By focusing on quality first, Vo has himself a budding franchise if he wants it. Already, he says, potential investors have inquired about more locations, all of which means: I’m not the only one who was bowled over.