Poke Bowled Over

The poke phenomenon is thriving in Orlando, with plenty of homegrown and chain eateries to satisfy our cravings for the marinated-fish specialty.

We’re already familiar with raw fish on our menus because of the ever-expanding reach of sushi from Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese eateries, supermarkets and basically anyone who can buy fish. But the international vocabulary of uncooked fish has grown to include Peruvian ceviche, Scandinavian gravlax and Italian crudo, to name a few, as well as the current darling, Hawaiian poke (pronounced POH-keh).

Poke (or poké, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus), meaning “cut in pieces,” consists of slightly marinated fish (usually ahi tuna or salmon) and veggies in a bowl with rice or greens. It traveled from Hawaii to the mainland around 2013, and within a few years, raw bowls were appearing everywhere, from classic food truck offerings to fine dining establishments, including the menus of Morimoto Asia and The Cheesecake Factory.

Sometime around 2014, the Hawaiian treat showed up in Orlando-area trucks and places like Disney’s Kona Café and, of all places, the Yard House chain. Lately, poke joints are popping up on every street corner, like fishy Starbucks clones, the draw being fresh ingredients and generous portions.

Basically, poke is the new frozen yogurt, with hopefully a longer shelf life.

The current wave of heavily invested poke chains is understandable when you look at the setup: raw fish in a bowl. Define that as refrigerators, rice cookers, a knife and some prep space (no ventilation system, no grease trap, in most cases no cooking surfaces) and you can see why poke is big business.    

Some of the successful national chains have moved into the area (with more to come). But  we’re particularly happy to have some standout homegrown contenders as well, serving local, sustainable fish and offering “build-your-own” and vegetarian options. Here are the high points of all.

Da Kine Poke
Food Truck
Founders Pete Downing and Aaron Smith started in a food truck in 2016 and now have four stationary locations (The Meat House in Winter Park, downtown’s Market on Magnolia, Tuffy’s Bottle Shop in Sanford and in New Smyrna Beach). Standout bowl: Tupat’s Island Bowl, with choice of fish, Maui onions, scallions, pickled radish, kimchi, avocado, sesame seeds, Tupat’s Hawaiian Island sauce. dakinepoke.com

Island Fin Poké CO.
Winter Springs, Celebration
Mark Setterington has four Florida locations of Island Fin (formerly Big Kahuna), with two more franchised out of state. The “choose your own” restaurants serve octopus, chicken, tofu and that Hawaiian delicacy Spam, along with the standards. 
Standout bowl: Spicy Tuna, with OG sauce, edamame, cucumber and avocado topped with togarashi sauce. Also serving: Dole whip pineapple float. islandfinpoke.com

Kona Poke Bowls
Lake Mary
Tijuana Flats franchise owner Matthew Ting and partner Ernie Falco III plan to open more than 20 locations throughout the Southeast in the near future. 
Standout bowl: Kona Fire, with ahi tuna, classic Hawaiian sauce, seaweed salad, green onion, sesame seeds, avocado, onion crisps, sriracha aioli. Also serving: miso ramen soup, side salads, mochi ice cream. konapokebowls.com

Lemonshark Poke
Dr Phillips
With 15 nationwide locations and an extensive menu, LemonShark has worked closely with FishWise, a non-profit organization promoting sustainability.  
Standout bowl: Albacore Islander, with tuna, cucumber salad, pineapple, red onion, crab salad, corn, macadamia nuts, tropical habanero and ponzu. Also serving: eggrolls, miso soup, tempura shrimp, Spam musubi (grilled Spam on a block of rice, wrapped with nori), lemongrass chicken, miso-glazed salmon, octopus, surimi, squid salad, and bases of soba noodles, forbidden rice and crispy wonton. lemonsharkpoke.com

Poke Hana
East Colonial Drive
Hoi Nguyen, who helped start the funky Mills Avenue favorite King Bao, has opened this bright and surfer-styled homegrown eatery with partners 

Alex Morato and Aiy Saysavnah, complete with a live video feed of Hawaiian sea scenes on the wall and sourcing information for its exceptional seafood. Standout item: Fire Island Tuna Taco, with chopped ahi, rice, lettuce, house-made crispy rice taco shell. Also serving: rice plates of grilled pork, chicken, shrimp; Hawaiian-roll sliders; poke nachos; Spam musubi; brain-melting Three Mountains yellow pepper Thai sriracha. poke-hana.com

Poke Joint
Lake Mary
Conceived by owners Daniel and Johanna Joseph on a trip to Hawaii, PJ opened last year in the new Park Lane Place development, specializing in “detox” bowls with a keto diet slant, as well as poke-filled burritos. 
Standout bowl: Carb-Free Cauliflower Bowl, with yellowfin ahi tuna, spicy classic sauce, house-made cauliflower rice. freshpokefast.com

Milk District
Originally from Miami, the PokeKai food trailer has taken up residence at the À La Cart food park (see our visit this issue).  
Standout item: Poke burger, with tuna, seaweed salad, togarashi sauce, fried rice “bun.” Also serving: bao; “avokai” (poke served in a half avocado). alacartorlando.com/pokekai

Some goodness from PokeKai, the food trailer operating in À La Cart food park. (ROBERTO GONAZALEZ)

Co-owners and brothers Peter Yang and Mike Wu asked Top Chef alum Sheldon Simeon, born in Hawaii, to consult on menu items. With 38 stores (five in Florida) and 28 on the way (a mix of company owned and franchise), Pokéworks has been called “the market leader” by Inc. Magazine. 
Standout bowl: The Chef Sheldon signature Lava Bowl, with ghost pepper and Sriracha sauce over poke, topped with Thai chilis and chili threads  (available mild, medium, or heavy). Also serving: poke burritos with a roasted seaweed wrap. pokeworks.com

Poke-ing Around
Poke is a worldwide phenomenon, found in Barcelona, Dublin, Singapore and Cape Town, South Africa. Seek out Guppy in Delhi, Poke Bay in Munich and Botanical Club in Milan. Poke Poke opened last year in Dubai, as did Poke Burger in Stockholm and Bowl Shakalaka in Shanghai. There are three poke shops in Moscow and more than a dozen in Paris.

Categories: Culinary Spotlight, Reviews