Three Seattle-area poke places recently closed down. Is this the onset of poke fatigue — the beginning of a poke reckoning? And is the trend more complicated than it seems?
In the Seattle area, Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max truck began rolling around in 2013. A grocery store or two was in on it, too. People liked poke (pronounced “po-kay”), but it wasn’t, as they say, a thing. Then in the spring of 2016, the Hawaiian-style rice bowls topped with jewel-like pieces of raw fish started popping up everywhere around here, and everywhere else, too. In January 2017, a Hawaii Magazine headline read “How the Hawaiian poke bowl became the world’s new fast food.”
Locally, the Hillman City branch of Poke to the Max was among the first brick-and mortar poke endeavors. Now the Max empire also includes three trucks, a Tacoma shop, and a poke-presence at CenturyLink Field. Other early area purveyors include 45th Stop N Shop & Poke Bar, located inside a convenience store in Wallingford where the Erotic Bakery used to be, and Big Island Poke, a Renton spot with a very different, stylishly spare interior.
Now there’s also goPoké, Pokéworks (two branches), Poké Lover (three), Poke Square, Poke Fresh, Poke Alice, Poke Alice 2, Beyond the Bowl and Hello Poke, to name a few who’d like to say hello to you. In just two short years, more than 40 poke places have sprung up in and around Seattle, including several trucks. Fast counter service and relatively cheap prices for a bounty of fresh fish (between 10 and 15 bucks a bowlful) are the norm.
Food trends sometimes just happen like this: a new idea, some breathlessly excited press (and I myself am guilty of being very enthusiastic), and then a lot of people decide to try to get in on it, all at once. Whether the motivation is to share something delicious with the world or cash in on something delicious’ new popularity (or both), no amount of market research can tell those jumping on the bandwagon how many others are doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. It’s one of the (many) uncertainties of the crazy restaurant business — there’s no governing body, no all-seeing eye. Will you open your ramen, pizza or poke place only to find several more within a few blocks? Even in a city that’s expanding as fast as Seattle is, to run a restaurant is to roll the dice, the odds on poke look especially hard to gauge.
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Of course, poke is not at all new — it’s a traditional food in Hawaii, ubiquitous there long ago, now sold everywhere from great little shops to grocery stores. And a dominant culture taking something time-honored and integral to some, then trumpeting it as just “fun!” and “new!” isn’t fun and new for everyone. “People are writing about the poke trend, but no one is paying attention to the history of it,” chef Mark “Gooch” Noguchi wrote in First We Feast in early 2016 (just when the “trend” was ramping up here). “Here’s my question,” he continues. “Do you know and respect where the dish came from? If not, then you have no business making it.” In the January 2017 Hawaii Magazine “World’s new fast food” article, Honolulu-based food writer Martha Cheng explains the evolution of poke through waves of immigrants and changes in fishing in its homeland. (She’s also written about “king of poke” Sam Choy’s role in its popularization.)
Chef Noguchi also points out that, poke-wise, “Another problem that’s being overlooked is the grave, environmental effects of turning a finite resource” into everyday eating. The finite resource he’s talking about is fish. If your favorite poke place doesn’t make a big deal out of serving only sustainably sourced seafood — and few do — you and it are more than likely part of that environmental problem. (Checking the status of the fish you’re contemplating eating on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app is the right thing to do, and so is paying more for fish that isn’t in danger of being decimated by our appetites.)
Three local poke places recently ceased poke-ing. Newport Poke near Seattle University is no more — heralded for its innovation of offering Flamin’ Hot Cheetos as a topping, it lasted less than a year. Capitol Hill’s Wanderfish Poke, which opened in the fall of 2016, was loudly and proudly serving sustainable fish (including, according to an opening press release, albacore tuna from Washington’s Lummi Island, Oregon scallops and Alaskan sockeye salmon). Reconcepting last fall — a name change to “Wanderfish and Co.” plus the addition of ramen and waffles on a stick to the menu — apparently did not do the trick; it closed about a month ago.
I’ve been unable to reach management at Newport or Wanderfish, which is understandable — talking about your shut-down restaurant has got to be up there with oral surgery when it comes to lack of fun. But No Vacancy Poke, inside Ballard’s Hotel Albatross, was always intended to expire, according to Albatross’ Zach Harjo. A temporary installation, it was Ballard’s first poke place when it opened a year ago. (Hotel Albatross still has poke on its own menu, Harjo says, and they’re kicking around ideas for the next pop-up.) Harjo and then-Albatross chef Jon Green started talking about poke over a beer, and Green’s “brain just exploded” with ideas and excitement. They’d source their fish scrupulously, and they’d make it a chef-driven kind of thing, “Take the Subway-ness out of it … have it feel a little more like a sushi bar,” Harjo recalls of their planning. They opened No Vacancy Poke fast, in a matter of weeks, not months. Doing the sustainable thing in a cost-effective way “wasn’t easy,” Harjo notes. “Margins in restaurants are already super slim.
“Then all these other poke places opened in Ballard,” Harjo says. “It started feeling so trendy, it almost started feeling a little lame.” After a strong start, business fell off, too. “If it’d continued to go nuts and be super busy,” he notes, “we probably would’ve kept it going.” They pulled the plug at less than a year.
So, is this just the beginning of the Seattle poke reckoning? “I think that every neighborhood will support one” poke place, Harjo says. “Just not six.”
It remains to be seen, and meanwhile, it’s not stopping. In just the last two months, Aloha Poke Co. opened in the Central District, the third Poke Lover opened downtown and the Eastside’s Just Poké opened its third outlet in Factoria.
But Just Poké co-owner Norman Wu isn’t fretting about any poke glut. “There’s going to be competition,” he says, “but you can’t worry too much.” He thinks the Seattle area “can definitely support a lot of each type of food category,” and he sees poke as “playing a bit of catch-up” with the likes of Mexican and Thai food — and sushi, for that matter. He also says he and his partner, Danny Brawer, are serious about sustainability, serving, for example, only line-caught Pacific tuna and Marine Stewardship Council certified salmon. All their servingware is also compostable. Their website motto: “Eat Clean, Act Right, and Live Well.” He says his customers want to do the right thing and that “it’s worth the extra cost to be keenly aware of the environment.” And it looks like their care is paying off: They’re rolling the dice on four more locations, all set to be open by June.
An earlier version of this story misstated the year that Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max truck debuted in Seattle — it was 2013.