Poke, the Hawaiian dish of spiced raw fish, is quickly becoming as ubiquitous as the croissant-donut hybrid, so it's no wonder that Old Town Pasadena is home to not just one, but two poke restaurants -- on the same block, no less. Both offer build-your-own bowls, fresh fish and friendly service.
The dilemma is no longer, "What's actually good to eat in Old Town?" Instead, it's now, "Which poke spot should I go to for my raw fish and rice craving?" So we thought we'd put the two to the test to answer the question.
Contender No. 1: Spinfish Poke House
Spinfish Poke House offers poke bowls that scratch the nostalgic itch for classic Hawaiian poke bowls. Ordering here is a four-step process. Step 1 is to pick the size of the dish and the kind of fish (ahi tuna, salmon or hamachi). Step 2 is to choose either a signature bowl with pre-determined sauce and toppings, or to create your own. Step 3 is to determine your base (white or brown rice, mixed greens, noodles). Choosing add-ons such as guacamole or seaweed is the fourth and final step. All the add-ons (other than crab meat) will run you $1 or $2.
The restaurant, tucked in an alley off of the main strip, is tiny. There's a bar along the window, a handful of tables inside, and some more tables outside. The signature bowls are a great option for the poke novice, or someone suffering from decision fatigue, but don't be afraid to try the build-your-own option. Just make sure to ask for some ogo (seaweed) and hawaiian sea salt for true island flavor. 36 W. Colorado Blvd. No. 7, Pasadena, (626) 585-0988, spinfishla.com
Contender No. 2: Poke Salad Bar
Soft-opened in early May, Poke Salad Bar is located on Colorado Boulevard in the former home of Saladish. (The new owners have scheduled a grand opening on June 6.) Ordering at Poke Salad Bar comes in five steps. Step 1 is to choose a base (white or brown rice, salad or a roll) and a size. Step 2 is to determining the seafood: ahi tuna, spicy tuna, salmon, yellowtail, scallop, albacore or octopus. Step 3 is picking the toppings. For step 4, you choose the sauce, and for step 5, you pick the garnish toppings (masago, green onion and sesame seed). What's good about Poke Salad Bar is that there's no upcharge for most of the toppings -- if you want more crabmeat or avocado, it'll be $1.
While it may be heretical to order something other than the ahi for poke, ordering a bowl with half salmon and half scallop is pretty great. The slightly creamy sauce of the scallop goes well with the oily richness of the salmon. The bowl can be balanced out by the citrus tang of ponzu, cucumber and seaweed. 12 West Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 304-3100.
Spinfish Poke House gets points for the uniqueness of toppings -- including ogo, furikake, panko, Hawaiian sea salt and even lemon zest. Poke Salad Bar gets points on the variety of fish: The scallops were surprisingly good and it's nice that they also have octopus. Poke Salad Bar also gets points for ample seating, since it makes the post-ordering experience less stressful, and for offering rolls, which some customers may prefer.
Poke Salad Bar wins, albeit by a small margin. Considering that both restaurants are huge improvements to the Old Town dining scene, in the end, it's up to what you prefer. If you're craving the island flavor and need Hawaiian comfort food, Spinfish is where you should head up. If you want some different fish in your poke bowl and are dining with a large group, then Poke Salad Bar wins.