I’m a no-frills eater, and so the simplicity of a dish like poke is appealing. A light dressing of sesame oil and sea salt over smartly sourced and fresh tuna or other fish. That’s it. Perfect.
But now that poke is an emerging food trend — if not the latest torch-bearer of dining fads — all sorts of new poke spots (no, not “PokéStops”) are popping up.
That’s why I emailed Nino Camilo, a former-islander, now-mainlander who started the I Love Poke Festival series, which came to the Bay Area for the first time last month. He kindly broke down the different culinary philosophies behind the poke craze.
There’s traditional Hawaiian poke (pronounced “poh-kay”), what with the aforementioned classic approach. (If you’re on Oahu, he says visit Pa’ina Café for the real deal.) And there’s also a new “third wave” of poke purveyors, as he calls them; places that have popped up in the past year or two.
With this newcomer status comes a healthy learning curve. Camilo, for instance, was pretty critical of many of these new poke eateries. “I am going to be honest and say that at least 50 percent of these places are not actually serving poke,” he argued. “They are serving varietals of raw fish bowls with mixed veggies and sauces. One day, we will give these bowls a name. But for now, let’s just say they are not poke.”
OK, so what is “real poke.” Who is doing poke right?
For an answer, I turned to chef Billy Ngo, owner of Fish Face Poke Bar, which launched in Sacramento last year and will soon open at Emeryville Public Market, in addition to a possible Oakland location. Ngo also embraces the basic tenets of classic poke. “As long as you stay true to tradition of some type of salt, protein, onions, oil, you can call it a version of poke, in my opinion,” Ngo explained. At his restaurants, the fish is presented stand alone, sans rice, and with only sauces and seasonal ingredients. And no fake crab.
“One trend in the poke-bowl business I can’t stand is the mound of fake crab salad they add in every bowl,” the chef said. “It does nothing but take up space on the bowl, to give you perceived value, but you are actually getting less fish with all free veggies and scoop of ‘Krab salad.'”
Fish Face stands out in how the chef integrates top-notch and seasonal California ingredients. Consider Ngo’s lunch from last Monday afternoon: “I stopped in after gym and made [poke] for myself with seared sturgeon, mussels, octopus, kimchee ponzu, jalapeños, heirloom tomatoes, chili oil, onions, seaweed, scorched Nardello peppers, and crunchy garlic,” he shared.
And he’s OK with taking liberties on the Hawaiian tradition. “We are in California, the state of agriculture and farms, so I like include all our cool produce we have around us,” he explained.
Camilo has zero problem with this, too. In fact, he invited Ngo to compete at the first-ever Bay Area I Love Poke competition last month in San Francisco. “I love new styles of poke where chefs get creative,” Camilo explained. “The key to this is to make sure that whatever ingredients you use, blend [them] together well. You can’t just throw things in there to be different.”
Here in the East Bay, there exist both poke-only eateries and also restaurants with poke dishes on their menus. One of the more popular destinations is Simply Bowl, on University Avenue in Berkeley: a shotgun-style café that caters to students, what with its proximity to campus. It’s a casual eatery with counter-order service, IKEA-inspired décor, and flatscreen TV menus.
The fare at Simply Bowl belies its name: These are multi-ingredient jumbles of fish, toppings, and sauces, served over steamed rice. And, yes, don’t tell chef Ngo, but there’s even some of that Krab salad.
I ordered the Ying-Yang bowl, which features cubed chunks of both wild ahi and farm-raised salmon, in addition to squares of mango, squid, shredded seaweed salad — all drenched in a gently spicy mayo sauce. The manager said the fish is prepared and sliced each morning. And while the $12.99 price tag might outstretch some student budgets, it’s a substantial mishmash that, in the vein of Chipotle, will fill you up. But it may not satisfy more discerning palates.
Leave that to the ahi tuna poke appetizer at Blind Tiger, the new-ish underground Asian-fusion spot on Telegraph Avenue, in the basement beneath popular Gogi Time. Blind Tiger is hip, and its poke is traditional with a modern twist. The basics are there — wild yellowfin ahi (chef says it was flown in from Fiji), salt, oil, etc. — but the chef mixes it up with diced avocado, dusted macadamia nut, scallions, and fried wonton chips. It’s a stellar dish for sharing, and the tuna is richer in flavor, and denser in mouthfeel, than what you’ll find at most eateries.
But would Camilo be satisfied? I’d wager yes: It may not be perfect poke, but it’s perfectly good.