Here’s a fact about poke that may surprise you: It’s an American dish. Well, sort of. Truthfully, it’s a traditional Hawaiian dish. Poke is a simple fish salad. Served as an appetizer or small dish, it’s built on a base of rice or seaweed, topped with marinated raw fish and garnished with fresh ingredients like avocado or edamame. Originally, Hawaiian fishermen prepared poke from pieces of the day’s catch as a snack, using little more than the fish itself. Today, with over 700 restaurants serving it across the country, it is undoubtedly the newest food craze to hit America. Being a diverse city full of hungry Millennials, Houston wasted no time getting in on the poke action.
Today the Bayou City has nearly a dozen poke-centric eateries. Much of the city’s poke presence still exists in pop-ups and food trucks. Among them is Downtown’s MOKU BAR. Situated in the Conservatory, Houston’s popular underground beer garden and food hall, owner Tuan Tran is putting his chef skills to work creating a menu of enticing poke bowls. They offer the popular build-your-own model, but it is recommended to try a house favorite. The HTX and Maddy’s Special are particularly well reviewed. Moku Bar opened in 2016, one of the earliest poke spots in the city, and rumor has it that Tran will be relocating to a brick and mortar location soon.
As expected, the city’s poke craving has drawn some out-of-town franchises like North Shore Poke and Pokeworks. But the poke wave has also welcomed a handful of new local businesses, such as homegrown startup ONO POKE in Midtown. Opened in December of 2016, Ono was Houston’s first poke brick and mortar. Here you are encouraged to follow the Chipotle®-style, build-it-yourself model. They offer a list of traditional bases and proteins as well as some interesting topping choices like crushed Cheetos® and jalapenos. They make a variety of house bowls as well, the most popular of which is the spicy salmon. Think spicy mayo, salmon and hot Cheetos in a bowl.
If you’re thinking that poke sounds like the poor man’s sushi, you’re not entirely wrong. The appeal of the dish is its convenience and affordability compared to sushi. For the price of one roll, diners get more of the same ingredients in a much trendier setting. However, while the initial concept may be all about fast, fresh and filling, new restaurants across the country are stepping up their game to create sophisticated and creative poke dishes.
A few miles from Ono, in Eado, SEASIDE POKE has become a fan favorite since opening in May. Their six signature bowls are all recommended, but my personal favorite is the Truffle Yellowtail. This dish features yellowtail tuna marinated in shoyu sauce, truffle and cilantro on a bed of rice, and garnished with ito togarashi (shredded Japanese red chili). The bowls at Seaside are indicative of how poke has progressed from food truck snack to a full-blown genre with varying levels of sophistication. Whether you’re looking for a simple bowl of rice, tuna and soy sauce, or an explosive mix of Asian and Pacific Island flavors, Houston’s poke scene is in full swing and the mouthwatering options are abundant.