Do you want brown rice or kale? Sriracha aioli or ponzu sauce? Fancy an ice cream scoop full of chopped raw salmon, or are you feeling more like albacore today? These are the decisions you ponder while waiting in line at a poke (pronounced poke-eh) restaurant. And, yes, there's a line, almost always, at all of them.
The Hawaiian staple of chopped, seasoned raw fish is just the latest food to be eclipsed by the Subway effect, in which you transform your sandwich, burger, burrito, pizza or salad into a my-way-or-the-highway meal and make it as finicky or as uncreative as you want.
And Los Angeles' penchant for poke is growing. Once a puka-shell-wearing surfer's mainstay, you can now find poke even in the hands of slight Angelenos in oversized sunglasses and ripped denim shorts with Shih Tzus at their feet. But why the sudden poke craze? If you're Trisha Fortuna and Jason McVearry, owners of Poke Poke in Venice, the first customizable poke stand in L.A., or Stefanie Honda, co-owner of Jus' Poke in Redondo Beach, it has a lot to do with bringing a Hawaiian childhood favorite to Los Angeles.
According to Eric Park, owner of Ohana Poke restaurants in downtown L.A. and Silver Lake (and Blackhogg and Sopressata), L.A. was always supposed to be a poke town. "I just think it was meant for the California palate," said Park, who closed his bánh mì place, Hero Shop, to open a poke restaurant earlier this year. "I don't think it's like a juice bar kind of fad. It's the perfect food for the people here."
With the rate of poke restaurants opening over the last two years, it seems the rest of the city agrees. Here's a guide to nine worth visiting:
This small Redondo Beach restaurant is all about tradition. There's no building your own bowl here, just a list of signature pokes, including original (green onion, sweet onion, seaweed), spicy, shoyu, wasabi and California roll made with imitation crab. You do get to choose two sides, though. Go with the pickled cucumbers (served in big spears) and seaweed salad. 501 N. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach, (310) 379-1133, www.juspoke.com.
Mainland Poke Shop
This is the best poke restaurant if you want to see and be seen. You'll most likely stand in line and build your bowl next to a group of publicists or screenwriters. There are signature bowls, a tofu poke bowl or you can come up with your own creation of kale, albacore, shoyu, avocado, mango and chile flakes. 83181/2 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 452-9904, www.mainlandpoke.com.
Ohana Poke Co.
Expect bowls of sashimi-grade big-eye tuna topped with furikake, scallions, wasabi peas and edamame surrounded by downtown's artsy loft-dwelling crowd. This place also has some great options for vegetarians, including a chile mango poke, soy ginger tofu poke and shiso radish poke. 130 E. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 265-7561, www.ohanapokeco.com.
This stand takes longer than most customizable poke places. That's because the guys inside are cutting the fish to order. This will all be worth it once you make friends with the shirtless surfers behind you and enjoy the free show across the boardwalk at muscle beach. The poke is fresh, served in deli cups with an ocean breeze, just like in Hawaii. 1827 Ocean Front Walk, Venice, (424) 228-5132, www.poke-poke.com.
At $7 for a small bowl (includes two scoops of fish), this is one of the most reasonable poke restaurants in the city. It's also conveniently located in a culinary dead zone, also known as Hollywood and Highland. Pick your fish and add crab meat, avocado, sweet onion and cucumbers — which all happen to be free. Decide if you want rice, salad or chips as your base, then add spicy mayo or miso on top. 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Suite 316, Los Angeles, (323) 645-7730, www.pokinometry.com.
Poke Salad Bar
Get your poke on rice, salad or in a wrap. This place gets major points for all the free toppings, including pineapple, seaweed salad, crab and crispy garlic or onions. The variety of seafood is also impressive, with spicy tuna, tuna, salmon, yellowtail, scallop, albacore and octopus. And there are macaroon ice cream sandwiches for dessert. 12 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 304-3100.
Don't be dissuaded by the line — it moves quickly. Once inside, you can get a signature bowl or go nuts with your choice of noodles, rice, mixed greens or chips as a base (poke nachos!); guacamole; wasabi creme; Hawaiian sea salt and pineapple and mango salsa. 36 W. Colorado Blvd., No. 7, Pasadena, (626) 585-0988, www.spinfishla.com.
This may be the most L.A.-friendly of them all. For one, your base is either a green rice that has been milled with bamboo juice; kelp noodle and cucumber slaw (low-carb and gluten-free); or citrus kale salad. This place also gets major props for chef Dakota Weiss' variety of toppings, including wasabi toasted coconut, blistered shishito peppers and pickled shiitake mushrooms. And did we mention it's within walking distance of the beach? 829 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 395-1097, www.sweetfinpoke.com.
Located in the heart of Koreatown, this poke restaurant has a steady clientele of fashion students and businessmen. You can build your own bowl and choose from a long list of free sides and toppings, including spicy edamame, cabbage, wasabi, furikake and masago. And for the full Hawaiian effect, there's Spam musubi. 3438 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 739-4363, www.wikipoki.com.