Poke has been deemed the craze of 2016, and rightfully so, but when my mind strays to this raw fish salad, memories of my grandfather aren't far behind. Him, just back from Foodland, a grocery chain throughout the Hawaiian islands, with the necessities: Diamond Bakery soda crackers, guava jelly, milk, a couple jugs of from-concentrate Tampico juice, and a deli container of shoyu poke, a favorite of his. Me, five years old and digging in: cubed chunks of ahi tuna, shiny with sesame oil, marinated in shoyu soy sauce, and mixed with slice sweet onion, Hawaiian sea salt, and veins of crunchy ogo seaweed clinging to everything.
Poke, fundamental to just about any Hawaiian gathering, has crept steadily into the West Coast’s culinary consciousness for years. It’s long been a fixture here in Seattle, which is perfectly unsurprising. Kamala Saxton serves three versions of it at her Columbia City restaurant Super Six; she points to Seattle's close proximity to Hawaii coupled with the city's appreciation for Asian cuisine and native Hawaiian culture, “making poke an easy transition onto menus, food trucks, even in Costco.” Indeed some Costco branches, Metropolitan Markets, and, of course, Uwajimaya supermarkets have designated poke bars. Poke makes appearances in fancier venues like AQUA by El Gaucho and Goldfinch Tavern in the Four Seasons, and in diner-esque Hawaiian haunts like Kona Kitchen and Kauai Family Restaurant. The chirashi bowl—available in countless sushi bars—is a close cousin, too.
But as of this past year, poke's seriously everywhere—at least seven poke bars opened in Seattle in 2016 alone and it shows up everywhere from burritos to nachos. It's sold by the pound deep in the heart of the city's historically African American neighborhood at the brand new Seattle Fish Guys Market, where they whip up seven iterations daily. It even lurks 35 floors above the street as a small plate at the Smith Tower's born-again prohibition-styled bar.
Sure, Seattle has a seemingly undying love for seafood, and a comfort level with raw preparations. But to push its reach further still, poke's also holding hands with two other nationwide trends: fast-casual dining and the bowl-ification of, well, everything.
We love shit in bowls. There's no exact formula to what, exactly, constitutes a bowl but typically it's a hearty combination of grains, fresh greens or herbs, and lean protein, all conveniently delivered in one vessel. Doubling down on trendiness the bowl's contents may be paleo adjacent, gluten free, or at the very least somewhat healthy. And damn if it's not incredibly photogenic. Poke is like the Lisa Frank of bowls: an Instagram-worthy rainbow of colors from pink salmon, verdant layers of lettuce and seaweed salad, and bright-orange fish roe.
Unlike its raw fish sibling, sushi, most of Seattle’s poke shops are pretty fast casual. Sam Choy and Max Heigh's Poke to the Max food truck mobilized poke, bringing it to the lunch-going masses in 2013, and now has a brick-and-mortar sibling in Rainier Valley. There’s Pokeworks downtown and Wanderfish Poke, now open on Broadway Avenue, where you can design your own sustainable dish at the counter. On First Hill, Coffee Tree Cafe and Poke unites two Seattle darlings under one roof. But in Wallingford, in perhaps the most unlikely of places—a former erotic bakery and current convenience store—is a counter dedicated to poke bowls.
John Chung, who co-owns 45th Stop N Shop and Poke Bar, is from the Bay Area. Poke may hail from Hawaii, but he notes that California, with its predilection for fresh foods, helped usher in sushi burritos and poke bowls. LA made sure to put avocado on it too. Chung's setup however has Hawaiian style all over it: Reminiscent of small, roadside general stores in the islands, he sells poke bowls alongside aspirin, travel-sized condoms, and rolls of toilet paper. What's perhaps an oddity here, is exactly the kind of place my grandfather sent me to bring home lunch...as well as a pack of cigs.
For brothers and co-owners of GoPoke Trinh, Michael, and Bayley Le, Hawaii was once home, where the family business meant selling fresh tuna door to door. Eventually they moved to the mainland and found careers decidedly outside of the fishing industry, yet thousands of miles from the islands and many years later the Les have fully circled back to selling seafood. In GoPoke’s white-tiled corner space on Sixth and Maynard, buffet trays of different poke line the bar. Being my greedy self, I order the poke bowl with everything: ahi tuna, salmon, and tako all rest on white rice and get cozy with edamame, seaweed, pickled ginger, and beads of roe. It tasted like home. Perhaps it's the fact that they marinate fresh fish for at least two hours, a must for legit poke—I don't have much love for tuna with dressing on top masquerading as poke.
Beyond flavor, it felt like home. I was met with the warmest welcome, also famously known as “aloha,” meanwhile I bobbed along to J Boog's reggae tones playing overhead. I don't know if my grandpa would have agreed, but for me it’s an approximation of those summers and trips to Foodland or Tamura's Market. He would have, however, been all about Dole pineapple whip soft serve dusted with li hing mui, a pleasantly sweet and sour dried plum powder, another favorite.
Poke was undoubtedly Seattle’s most prominent food trend of 2016, a tumultuous year that was also full of uncertainty and change. Whatever 2017 brings—more things in bowls or hopefully a marked surge in Filipino food—at least Seattle is now fortified with copious amounts of the comfort food of my childhood.