Sushi was once considered unimaginable to most Americans—who in their right mind would want to eat raw fish?—but similar to how sushi made its way into the mainstream, poke is following in its footsteps decades later.
Poke, a diced raw fish specialty, originates from Hawaii. Traditionally, it’s made using fresh, uncooked ahi tuna, combined with sea salt, seaweed, and roasted and crushed kukui nut. In Hawaii, it’s long been sold by the pound from deli counters just like potato salad or tubs of olives, and is popular at picnics and at parties, where it’s often served as part of a “mixed plate,” or larger plate lunch of Hawaiian food.
According to Martha Cheng, author of The Poke Cookbook: The Freshest Way to Eat Fish, the concept of poke, which means “to slice or to cut crosswise into pieces,” originated with native Hawaiians prior to Captain James Cook landing on the islands in the eighteenth century. “Native Hawaiians would prepare i’a maka (raw fish) chopping up reef fish (the striped and brightly colored fish you see when snorkeling in Hawai’i), bones and all. They would season it with sea salt dried in the sun, limu (seaweed) and ‘inamona (toasted and crushed kukui nut or candlenut,” says Cheng. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the dish really gained popularity in Hawaii and came to be associated with the preparation we know now.
Starting around 2015, poke became increasingly available across the continental United States as poke-focused chains began to spring up nationwide. Poke was sold by the scoop before being served over a bed of rice and or salad greens. In its newer format, poke resided at the intersection of sushi, rice bowls, and salad bars, its popularity coinciding with the rise of keto and low-carb diets. Adding to its appeal, these poke bowls were customizable for each customer and generally priced more affordably than sushi.
In 2017, The Hollywood Reporter reported a tenfold increase in poke establishments over two years. Market research firm Datassential observed the term “poke bowl” had grown by 167 percent on menus from 2015-2019, and predicted poke would continue to grow another 47 percent on menus overall by 2023. Another chain, Aloha Poke, has announced plans to open 100 new outlets by 2022.
While the early boom of poke shops has seen some busts with the exit of chains like FireFin and Freestyle Poke, today poke is well on its way to becoming as commonplace as supermarket sushi. It’s still available at many fast-casual spots, delis, big box stores like Costco, and even chain restaurants such as The Cheesecake Factory and Red Lobster. In addition to being made with all kinds of seafood, there are also vegetarian and vegan versions of poke made with ingredients such as tofu or beets.
Today most mainland poke shops feature a fast-casual build-your-own bowl experience. Customers choose a base, a poke, and various optional toppings like edamame, jalapeños, cucumber, seaweed salad, and even things like pineapple and corn to add to a scoop or two of fresh fish. Instagram-friendly, fast, fresh, healthy and relatively inexpensive, poke was almost destined to be a hit. Opines Cheng, “When I see poke trending now in the continental U.S. I wonder, what took so long? Hawaiians have long known the pleasures of seasoned raw seafood.”
Here are just a few places where you can get poke in San Francisco:
- Hi City (Financial District, SF): Build your own poke bowl or choose from one of six options, including a vegan poke bowl made with marinated tofu.
- Big Fish Little Fish Poke (Financial District, SF):This spot offers six different poke bowls plus a a burrito and poke mashup called a pokerito.
- Saucy Asian (Castro, SF): Dig into one of several poke bowls such as the Saucy Asian Style that comes with tobiko.
- Pacific Catch (Marina, SF):Order one of three different kinds of poke, or choose the poke chirashi bowl to experience all three.
- Poke Delish (Mission Bay, SF): Create your own bowl or one of four signature bowls with tuna, salmon, tofu or a combination, including gluten-free shoyu.
Here are just a few places where you can get poke in the East Bay:
- Hashtag Poki (Telegraph, Oakland): Choose from three options of poke boxes—a mini, a regular, and a large—based on the size of your appetite.
- Alamar (Waverly, Oakland): One of the most popular items at this seafood spot is the build-your-own poke bowl.
- Poki Lab (Alameda): There’s something for everyone at Poki Lab, from raw and cooked seafood bowls to bubble tea drinks to Taiwanese fried snacks.
- Poke Parlor (Telegraph, Oakland):Even vegetarians can get in on the action with poke-inspired tofu bowls, with with tofu, seaweed salad, and avocado.
- Poki Poke (North Berkeley): With Poki Poke’s large poke bowl, choose up to four different proteins, from hamachi to ahi to octopus.
Here are just a few places where you can get poke in the South Bay:
- Aloha Fresh (Downtown, San Jose): With all its poke selections, this downtown San Jose spot will make you feel just like you’ve walked into a mini mart in Hawaii.
- Pacific Catch (Central Campbell): Order one of three different kinds of poke, or choose the poke chirashi bowl to experience the trio.
- Poki Bowl (Fairgrounds, San Jose): Get all the most popular poke varieties, plus add-ons like Spam musubi and Hawaiian Sun drinks.
- Hukilau (Downtown, San Jose): Come here for all the Hawaiian classics, like kalua pork and saimin, in addition to the poke pupus (appetizers).
- Poke House (Central Campbell): In addition to all the classics, look for unique specialties here, like the newly offered Salmon Skin Bowl.
Here are just a few places where you can get poke in the Peninsula:
- Poke House (University South, Palo Alto): Build your own small, medium, or large poke bowl and add your choice of ahi tuna, crab salad, garlic oyster tuna, and more. If you're not in the mood to build your own, pick from any of their seven signature bowls.
- Poke Bowl (Colma): Who said poke HAS to always be fish? Poke Bowl in Colma pushes the Hawaiian dish by offering spam alongside other fresh fish as a protein option for your poke bowl.
- Go Fish Poke Bar (Downtown, Redwood City): From fresh fish and in-house prepared sauces and sides to locally-sourced everything, Go Fish Poke Bar's chef Jerome Ito makes sure every bite of poke is a culinary delight.
- Poki Time (Daly City): At Poki Time, get the Original Combo Poki bowl – half ahi tuna, half salmon marinated in a house sauce served with dashi-infused sushi rice, seaweed salad, and kimchi. Live it up a bit by getting an extra serving.
- Truffle Butter Poke Bar(Aragon, San Mateo): As the restaurant name suggests, you can fancify your poke bowl with an addition of truffle aioli and for that extra bit of luxury make sure to top it with white truffle taro chips.