In theory, it's so simple — fresh fish, raw or nearly raw, chopped into beautiful square hunks and surrounded by equally fresh, crisp vegetables. But for such a simple dish, executing it at home isn't quite so easy. Sourcing high-quality fish that can easily be consumed uncooked isn't as easy as it should be, and many of these ingredients don't have a lengthy shelf life.
Some dishes — an impossibly fresh steak tartare comes to mind — could be made at home, in theory, but require enough legwork that the return on investment makes eating this dish at a restaurant worthwhile. Could this partially explain the North Texas rise of poke, the simple Hawaiian dish made with fresh raw fish as the star ingredient? That could be one explanation, but in reality, there are lots of reasons to love poke. It's certainly got a lot of star-power among the clean-eating crowd, who love that the dish is focused on high-quality protein and vegetables, though some local takes on it are served with chips, à la ceviche. And as North Texas makes its annual summer transition into hell, a dish like this makes sense — it's cool, it's light and it's filling. Who wants to eat chicken-fried steak at noon when it's 98 degrees outside?
Often described as sushi in a bowl, poke (pronounced po-kay) hails from Hawaii and is the surfing man’s easy, inexpensive, on-the-go sustenance after an exhausting day of riding waves. Often found in grocery stores or gas stations, it’s served in a plastic bowl or cup. You won't find it in any DFW gas stations — which is probably for the best — but here are a few North Texas spots that do poke well.
Ahi Poke Bowl
3701 Cooper St., Arlington
Ahi Poke Bowl, a spot that recently landed just north of The Parks Mall in Arlington, is like a baby bird that’s flown the nest early on sheer determination and hope — delicate and a bit out of place, yet with so much potential. Orders are taken at a counter and customers pick the particulars for each bowl, like at Chipotle. Choices include things like rice, various types of fish, avocado, seaweed and ginger.
The poke spot opened in Arlington in May.
“It all came out of the blue," says Kahng Vo, owner of Ahi Poke Bowl. "I’ve been a hibachi chef for a long time, but spent a lot of time earlier in my life in Hawaii — the 10 best years of my life. A friend of mine called me and asked if I wanted to open a poke restaurant in Texas. He told me it’s doing great in California and we should try it here.”
Business is good, explains Vo, and the new concept is slowly catching on.
“People just don’t know [what poke is],” says Vo, a Vietnamese refugee. “Fortunately there are a lot of people here from Hawaii, which is really surprising to me. Every day people come in and tell me they’re from Hawaii and say ‘Yes, we finally have poke here.’”
Vo says the most important ingredient at his restaurant is fresh fish, particularly ahi tuna, which he buys daily.
“It’s the most important thing, and I only buy it fresh, never frozen because the quality is so much better,” he says.
Orders are taken at the counter in the back, shuffling left slowly to build a bowl. Step one is to pick the base, which is rice (brown or white) and/or salad. Protein options include the ahi tuna (Hawaiian, shoyu or spicy), salmon (regular or spicy), popcorn shrimp or fried salmon.
Then, add toppings: crab meat, avocado, seaweed salad, masago, jalapeños, pineapple, red onion, green onion, ginger or cucumber.
A big bowl (three scoops of poke) is $10.95. A two-scoop bowl is $8.50.
It all comes together with a few different sauces added to the top, including a special poke sauce. The décor is light and breezy. With the soft Hawaiian music lofting overhead and “aloha” to greet every customer, for a second customers might forget they’re at the corner of Cooper and Arbrook.
Below 40 Poke House
1921 Preston Rd #2000, Plano
In a Plano strip mall, Below 40 Poke House is the kind of fast-casual spot that could serve just about anything. The interior is modern and unassuming, pop music playing while yoga pants-clad suburbanites order poke bowls and taro smoothies.
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It's not the kind of spot that might have ordinarily drawn us out to the 'burbs, but one bite proved worth the journey. Below 40's poke bowls — $9 for a regular and $12 for a large — can be filled with ingredients not easily found at Tom Thumb. After choosing a base (white rice, brown rice or salad), diners pick their protein (tuna, salmon, red snapper and scallops are worthy options) and select what else goes into the bowl, choosing from a menu that features everything from wasabi sauce to fresh edamame, masago, dried seaweed and fresh or pickled ginger.
It doesn't hurt to go nuts here — we opted to add just about everything on the menu, and the resulting bowl was packed with texture and flavors bouncing off each other. The umami of the seaweed, the bite of the wasabi sauce, the crunch of fresh veggies and richness of the fish — it was a completely memorable lunch, which isn't often found in strip malls surrounded by a Chik-fil-A and Starbucks.
It was such a fun lunch, in fact, that we popped over to Carrollton Plaza Supermarket in a futile effort to wrangle the ingredients to create the bowl at home. After an hour of wandering the massive market, we left defeated with only pickled ginger, sesame seeds and some cucumber. This is one $9 lunch that's well worth letting the restaurant do the legwork — and as fast-casual concepts go, this one makes a lot of sense.
1922 Greenville Ave.
For those who don't want to high-tail it to the suburbs for some poke, C'Viche's menu can accommodate. This is the type of fare C'Viche specializes in — fresh seafood piled high with veggies — and the $14 tuna poke bowl offered a hearty serving of the good stuff served with the most beautifully crunchy fresh chips, should a diner want to poke-down ceviche-style.
There was a bite more soy sauce in the bowl than we would have liked, but the fish was fresh and the veggies were crisp — and oh, those chips. Never has a greasy paper bag contained such a worthy chip. And did we mention this poke bowl doesn't require a trip to the 'burbs?