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Poke, slow to catch on, is now hot, hot, hot

The latest food craze to sweep Orange County is all about raw fish, rice and seaweed.

But it’s not sushi — it’s poke.

“The poke scene down here is pretty amazing,” said Steven Maybeno, owner of Tuna Block Poke in Dana Point. “There’s a lot of competition but a lot of good poke spots.”

Poke, pronounced poh-kay, is a Hawaiian word meaning to cut or slice. The dish, which originated in the Hawaiian islands, traditionally consists of raw fish — usually ahi tuna — cubed into three-quarter-inch pieces and seasoned with ingredients such as soy sauce, sesame oil, onions or seaweed.

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For Maybeno, who was previously executive chef at the Hawaiian restaurant A-Frame in Los Angeles and opened Tuna Block Poke in June, the reason for Orange County’s poke craze is clear.

“It’s healthy, it’s clean, it’s quick and it’s a way fair price,” he said. “People can spend $10, $12 and be full of really good quality food and have talented chefs make their food.

“If you go out to eat sushi, it’s $50, $60 for two people — it’s pretty expensive. But people love sushi. Poke makes it a little more affordable, a little quicker, a little more casual but still have the same flavors.”

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The sesame shoyo ahi at the Tuna Block Poke in Dana Point.
(Don Leach | Weekend)

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Poke has long been a staple of Hawaii’s local cuisine but only recently took off in Orange County, which now boasts dozens of poke restaurants (or eateries that sell poke as one of many seafood or Hawaiian offerings), most of which, like Tuna Block Poke, have popped up in the past year.

“There are six poke spots within 5 miles of here, said Maybeno. “It’s saturated.”

While native Hawaiians have long eaten raw fish mixed with seasonings, Rachel Laudan, author of “The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage,” said it wasn’t until the 1960s, after Hawaii became a U.S. state, that poke first emerged in its current form.

With statehood, she explained, disparate ethnic groups that had long inhabited the islands — including ethnic Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos — needed a common culture to bind them. This took the form of what’s known as “local food,” a type of cuisine that incorporated ingredients enjoyed across ethnic groups but was not owned by any one.

By incorporating raw fish, rice and seaweed — staples for most ethnic groups in Hawaii — poke developed into one of the most popular forms of local food.

“Poke — raw fish with seasonings — is a very nice case of a food that is distinct from the mainland, enjoyed by lots of groups in Hawaii and takes on a much greater importance as part of local food than the similar raw fish dishes of the distinct ethnic groups prior to statehood,” Laudan said. “It was something they could all share together.”

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Owner chef Steven Maybeno puts together a seared ahi musubi at the Tuna Block Poke in Dana Point.
(Scott Smeltzer | Weekend)

Hawaii-based food writer Martha Cheng likened poke to the mainland’s ubiquitous hamburger.

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“Almost every potluck I’ve been to has poke, every tailgate, every first baby luau. Any social gathering has poke,” she said.

“Hamburgers became popular with the explosion of cheap beef, which is similar to poke, because even though Hawaiians had always been eating small, raw reef fish, poke didn’t take off until the long-line fishing industry gave access to cheaper fish that were much easier to cut and cube.”

Cheng, author of the forthcoming “The Poke Cookbook: The Freshest Way to Eat Fish,” said she has wondered why it took people in Southern California so long to get into poke.

“We love sushi on the mainland,” she said, “and this is more casual, appealing, and the flavors aren’t challenging. It’s just easy and good.”

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The sesame shoyo ahi, left, and kimchi octopus, and poke nacho, at the Tuna Block Poke in Dana Point.
(Scott Smeltzer | Weekend)

Many attribute poke’s slow arrival to Southern California to evolving tastes on the mainland — since raw fish wasn’t considered palatable until sushi and ceviche were popularized. Boosting its acceptance was the migration of Hawaii locals to the mainland and a growing number of tourists looking for poke when they returned home from Hawaii.

Tim Aupperle, Whole Foods Market’s seafood coordinator for the southern Pacific region, said that when the Whole Foods Jamboree in Tustin started offering poke in 2008, customers were hesitant to buy it.

“A good percentage of them knew what it was from their trips to Hawaii on vacation, but they were afraid to try it because it was raw fish,” he said. “But then the sushi craze was happening as well, so we passed out samples, and pretty soon the whole category began to grow.”

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Now in addition to offering poke in bulk at the seafood counter, many Whole Foods locations also sell customizable poke bowls that include ingredients such as watermelon, almonds, onions, garlic, soy beans, mango, pineapple, seaweed and quinoa.

“Poke now takes up a large percentage of our department sales,” said Aupperle, who was tasked several years ago with studying poke in Hawaii in order to develop recipes for the grocery store chain. “Customers really like it, and they’re telling their friends, and their friends will come in and they’ll tell their friends. The response has been fantastic.”

Now, he said, Whole Foods locations across the country call him about setting up poke stations in their own stores, even in states far from the coasts, like Ohio and Illinois.

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The poke nacho bowl, at the Tuna Block Poke in Dana Point.
(Scott Smeltzer | Weekend)

Fred Fukushima, owner of CaliPoke in Costa Mesa, pointed to the customizable nature of poke bowls as the biggest reason the food is suddenly hot in Southern California.

“It all started from the Chipotle style. If there was no Chipotle, there would be no CaliPoke here,” he said, noting the Mexican food chain’s process of letting customers select their own incredients. “Almost any kind of food nowadays, people like to customize. That’s the newest trend.”

At CaliPoke, which opened in 2015, customers select a base (salad, brown or white rice), fish (tuna, salmon, yellow tail, octopus, shrimp or scallops), sauce (original, spicy, wasabi mayo, or teriyaki), additions (cucumber or onion) and toppings (avocado, crab meat, green onion, ginger, wasabi, fried onions or fish eggs), and watch as their meal is prepared on the spot.

Fukushima, who launched CaliPoke after owning the Japanese and sushi restaurant Zipangu for 12 years, said that customization sets Southern California poke apart from the poke in Hawaii, which is more commonly sold in bulk at grocery stores, instead of as a meal at a restaurant.

“What makes the poke in Southern California different from the poke in Hawaii is that we mix different kinds of fish to the customer’s liking — it’s mix and match,” he said. “So you could get five scoops of different fish — one tuna, one salmon, one yellow tail, one octopus and one shrimp — or you could get five scoops of salmon. In Hawaii, it’s usually all salmon poke or all tuna poke.”

While Laudan sees a certain irony in Hawaii’s signature local dish becoming the latest mainland food craze, she said it makes sense.

“If you’ve got access to reasonably good fish. It’s a breeze for a restaurant on the mainland because poke’s really easy to make,” she said.

“You don’t have to have a trained chef. Anyone who can hold a knife and cut, then sprinkle on shoyu or whatever else it happens to be, can turn out poke.”


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