The People’s Poke
Austin’s influx of poke shops is very welcome, just not really Hawaiian
It seemed to happen overnight: A year or so ago, you could generally only find poke on the menu at places like Koriente or Café No Sé, or at the Big Kahuna food truck in Rosedale. But then, like rabbits, fast-casual poke spots started popping up in strip malls and vacant restaurants across Austin. Suddenly, you couldn't throw a shaka and say "Aloha" without seeing a spot offering up build-your-own poke bowls, sort of like Chipotle for Hawaiian food. The choices are endless, from "pokerritos" coated in hot Cheetos at Poke House to poke nachos at Yard House.
But what is poke, really? (It's pronounced "poh-keh," and it's not spelled with an accent on the "e," by the way.) And why is it suddenly so popular here on the mainland? The word "poke" in Hawaiian means "to section" or "cube." In Hawaii, poke is a humble dish made of raw fish (usually tuna, but also octopus, or taro or tofu) cut into cubes and seasoned with simple ingredients, depending on your family and preferences. Salt, definitely. Shoyu, maybe some chili oil or sesame oil. Some onions, and definitely limu, sliced seaweed. According to Neens Camilo, the San Diego-based blogger of Ono Yum, who founded the annual "I Love Poke" festival, poke is a staple Hawaiian food, available by the scoop in the deli at the supermarket and at neighborhood mom-and-pop shops. "It's always been a food of the people," he says. "Not a tourist food."
Says Rachel Laudan, the Austin-based food historian whose award-winning 1996 book, The Food of Paradise, is widely considered to be the definitive history of Hawaiian cuisine, "poke comes in as a kind of social dish that everybody can enjoy. It's what Hawaiians call 'heavy pupu,' food to drink with beer at the garage or beach party. It's never a meal, and it's never served with rice."
"People's first impression of poke is usually way off," says Camilo. "There's Hawaiian-style poke and mainland-style poke." The mainland's fast-casual approach to topping the fish with edamame and crab salad and pineapple and avocado is about as Hawaiian as George Clooney. "The choose-your-own adventure model of poke leads to everywhere but poke," says Camilo. "It can still be good food if the ingredients are fresh. It's just not poke." Restaurateur Jason McVearry, whose wildly successful Venice Beach-based Poke-Poke recently expanded to Austin with two locations, agrees: "We don't necessarily consider the new assembly style as poke ... more fish salad." Poke-Poke offers curated poke bowls with simply seasoned fish and a "Hawaiian-style" option that eschews rice.
The great thing about foodways, though, is that they're inherently iterative. Creative chefs can tweak and innovate and fuse and take a dish in new, unexpected directions. That's how you wind up with guaca-poke at Kemuri Tatsu-ya and a plant-based beet-and-mango poke takeaway bowl from Snap Kitchen. And, it's not like poke itself isn't the result of migrations, interventions, and adaptations. According to Laudan, it was the Japanese who introduced deep-sea tuna fishing to Hawaii in 1890; before that, native Hawaiians made their poke using reef fish. "The whole food of Hawaii is a huge polyglot of cultures and cuisines," she says. "People take it and run with it."
There's no telling how long the pokexplosion will last in Austin; the poke trend in the mainland seems to be cresting as people embrace new, fresh, healthy options that are still a little out of the ordinary (see also: sushi, ceviche, kale salad). And while folks should feel free to top their poke bowls with as much sauce and hot Cheetos as they can stomach, true poke is simple and best enjoyed in the company of family and friends.