Poke — the simple, super-delicious Hawaiian raw fish salad — is having its Seattle-area moment.
If you happen to get invited to a party in Hawaii, you’ll probably have poke as a pupu — a paradisiacal set of circumstances, truly. Pupu just means appetizer (a million times more fun to say, and yes, it’s pronounced that way). The word poke — “POE-kay” — means “cut into cubes,” and the food poke is cool, jewel-like cubes of the freshest possible raw fish in the form of a simple, completely delicious salad. Originally made with the native kukui nut, poke later welcomed Asian-introduced ingredients like sesame oil and chilies. In Hawaii, they know how to party.
Poke is all over the place there, from holes-in-the-wall to the fanciest restaurants. Locals procure it at the fish counter, then include it in a lineup of snacks and sides, ready for people to put on their pupu plate or pick up right off the platter with their chopsticks. In Seattle, poke’s been quietly making inroads for some time — you can pick some up at Mutual Fish or many upscale grocery stores.
And now, suddenly and fortuitously, three new places that are all about poke have surfaced here — two in Seattle and one in Renton. These spots are serving poke in a bowl over rice, with plenty of pretty, tasty extras on top. Finally, it’s a fast-food happy meal that can actually make you almost deliriously happy.
Finding the poke counter lodged in the 45th Stop N Shop & Poke Bar — the same Wallingford corner spot where The Erotic Bakery used to be — feels like a minor miracle. It’s an ordinary, overstuffed little mini mart, selling candy and beer and those prepackaged egg salad sandwiches cut into triangles. Rap might be playing, pretty loud. But wait: There’s the pleasant, faint scent of sesame oil, and up the steps, in the back, is where it’s at.
45th Stop N Shop & Poke Bar
2323 N. 45th St., Seattle; 206-708-1882
Big Island Poke
235 Rainier Ave. S., Rent.on; 206-915-6760
Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max
5300 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; samchoyspoke.com
Astonishingly, the poke bowls at the 45th Stop N Shop are phenomenal. Order at the cash register from the simple blackboard menu. You’re only cheating yourself if you don’t get a combo for $2 extra, which gets you three kinds of fish for $12: deep red, almost-sweet tuna; glowing orange salmon; nearly opalescent snapper edged with crimson, ever so slightly firmer to the bite. Each kind of fish was absolutely fresh-tasting the day I was there, and the bowls are loaded with a treasure trove of additional greatness: mashed avocado, edamame, seaweed salad, krab salad, a hillock of masago (like tobiko, vivid little orbs of salty roe), a buried pile of pickled ginger.
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Sitting under fluorescent lights on one of four stools next to the Pepsi machine, I got giddy: marvelous, surprising food in a marvelous surprise of a place. I want to eat there every day this summer, the hotter it is, the better (and this food plus legal cannabis probably ought to be illegal).
Big Island Poke, marooned in the middle of a parking lot in Renton, is equally excellent in its own way, which includes seating in an unexpectedly sleek, A.C.–cooled room. Here, you move along the glassed-in counter, with your friendly bowl-assembler encouraging you from the other side; you can and should get more than one kind of poke. Bowls are $11, everything looks alluring, and a bounty of extras — including furikake, cucumber, green onion, masago and sesame seeds — are free, with avocado an undeniably worthwhile $1 extra. Where the 45th Stop N Shop is like an unforeseen gift, Big Island is an empowering adventure. “I’m excited for you!” the counterperson told a first-time poke-eater (“Me, too!” the person replied).
Big Island’s different kinds of poke have more distinct flavors than the Stop N Shop’s — one, say, with big pieces of sweet onion mixed in, one with a slight spicy heat — and the fish was just as fresh. This spot’s existence is a very strong argument for a trip to Renton (and it definitely renders the Ikea cafeteria obsolete).
Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max in Hillman City is also new, though you may have already seen the food trucks rolling around Seattle. Choy, who lives in Hawaii, is known as the Godfather of Poke; a 40-minute film about him showing at this year’s SIFF rounds out Seattle’s poke moment. (His Seattle restaurant collaborator is also the producer of the movie.)
While it’s already popular — and, like Big Island, offers a stylish, windowed space — the brick-and-mortar Poke to the Max was a little rough around the edges on a recent visit. Confusing menus made for a challenging ordering experience (though thankfully the counterperson remained resolutely mellow), while the poke looked limp in the case, was raggedly cut, and just didn’t shine. But the place has only been open a couple weeks, and Choy says he’ll be in Seattle as much as he can — presumably the Godfather can make the poke-problems go away, posthaste.