Poke on the Rise

 The popular spin on a traditional Hawaiian dish   

By Maeve Pascoe

The Hawaiian poke bowl, served at Tsaocaa on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, is customizable but typically comes with cubed salmon, fresh mangoes, warm rice, and vegetables that are topped with spicy mayonnaise, a drizzle of siracha, and crispy onions.

Nearby, Wiki Poke serves a Nacho Poke- a poke bowl with salmon and tuna that substitutes the usual rice with chips.

These two dishes only represent two variations on the traditional Hawaiian meal. Today, poke consumption in the United States has skyrocketed, allowing for the success of restaurants serving their modern take on the fish salad. Hawaiian poke typically only consists of seafood, seasoning, oil, and vegetables, but the version most popular among Americans today is called the poke bowl.

There were only two poke restaurants in Philadelphia in 2016. Today, there are over a dozen poke restaurants in Philly and others on the Main Line.

“It’s a buzz right now,” said the manager of The Pokespot on Chestnut Street. “We are so new we just opened last year. We were really busy around then,” she added. Even now she said they get over 100 customers per day.

An array of the dishes offered at Wiki Poke in Philadelphia

According to Yelp, worldwide there were 67 poke restaurants outside of Hawaii in 2012. In 2018, there were over 1,900 poke restaurants in the United States. In a blog post, yelp said poke businesses opened at a rate outpacing other restaurant categories such as ramen and coffee roasteries.

In addition, the food-ordering service Grubhub reported a 91 percent increase in average monthly popularity of poke bowl orders in 2018. A catering company, ZeroCater, reported a 78 percent increase in poke deliveries in major U.S. cities.

According to Foursquare data, the number of Hawaiian restaurants, including those that serve poke, doubled from 2014 to 2016 in the United States, meaning 700 Hawaiian restaurants on Foursquare in August 2016.

Poke bowls, such as those served at Tsaocaa, The Pokespot, or Wiki Poke, differ from traditional poke because they contain rice and grouped toppings. Instead of being marinated with sauce or oil, the sauces in modern poke are customizable because they are added last.

And it’s not just the sauces that are customizable; many poke places today have a build-your-own poke bowl on the menu. Customers can choose from a list of seafood, toppings and rice to create their favorite combinations.

Genevieve Altman, a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, loves how she can choose exactly what she wants to put on her poke bowl. “I usually get shrimp and edamame, cucumber, spicy aioli, and avocado and then top it with tempura flakes”, she said. “That’s kind of like my basic staple and then I’ll switch things out according to what I’m feeling”.

And it’s true- the concept of a healthy build-your-own fast food meal isn’t new. “Think Chipotle,” said Andrew Hu, the man behind Chinatown’s Philly Poke restaurant, in an interview with the Inquirer. “You pick white rice, brown rice, salad. Instead of chicken or pork, you will choose fresh tuna, salmon, shrimp, scallops, or even Spam. Add vegetables, pick a homemade sauce, and add condiments – maybe fish eggs or sesame seeds.”

The manager of Poke-man, another poke restaurant on Chestnut street that opened around two years ago, says his favorite thing about poke is the quality and convenience.

Mike Li, co-owner of Wiki Poke, adds that the many variations of protein and rice combinations is just one of the reasons for the multitude of poke shops that have opened in Philly. “It’s part of the health food craze,” he said. “And they’re following the sushi trend.”

Although poke can come with spicy mayonnaise, fried onions, or other toppings that aren’t typically seen as healthy, poke is certainly different typical fast food dishes. The fact remains that poke contains many omega-3 fatty acids while being a relatively low-fat dish. If a customer chooses to build their own bowl, they have the option of also adding the vegetables and sauce they want. Some restaurants even offer the option of white or brown rice.

Dana Caldwell, a Bryn Mawr sophomore, likes how poke bowls can easily be turned into a delicious but healthy vegan meal. She recently fell in love with poke after trying a poke bowl that swapped fish for tofu. “A lot of the toppings and sauces are already vegan”, she said. “So, I got tofu and a bunch of vegetables like edamame, ginger, onions, and carrots with a vegan sauce”.

The poke bowl’s easy customizability is also one of her favorite things about the modern dish. “When I got poke again a few weeks later, I was able to customize it again and get different toppings and a different sauce, so it was like I was eating a whole new meal.”

Maeve Pascoe covers food in Philadelphia.