Two snapshots of eating poke in Hawai'i: I am on Kaua'i. A local friend has sent me to Ishihara Market in Waimea for poke, but it's late and there's only one kind left. It's wasabi poke—fine by me—so I buy a quarter pound, a bag of tortilla chips, and a six-pack of beer. I go back to my bungalow and enjoy my feast while the sun drops into the Pacific Ocean.
Another trip, I'm standing next to George Kahumoku, the slack-guitar master, in the kitchen of an old plantation house in Pahala on the south end of Hawai'i Island. I've been at a music camp all week; Uncle George is here for the weekend luau. We're talking about poke, and when he finds out I haven't tried his, he whacks a kid on the arm and commands, "Eh, go get her some of that poke I made." Soon I'm feasting on some of the freshest poke I've ever tasted.
This is my problem with poke. I can't separate its flavor from my memories of being in Hawai'i. Inevitably, when I visit the island, I find myself happily snarfing down this island staple, slurping a lager, and cutting the whole thing with the salt crunch of cheap tortilla chips. It took me a long time to embrace the poke craze here on the mainland, because how could it compete?
Pretty effectively, it turns out. Seattle is awash in poke. There's that place in the back of the former Erotic Bakery—45th Stop N Shop & Poke Bar—that may or may not be the first real poke stop in Seattle, and the poke that's been on the menu at Mashiko in West Seattle since forever. But there's a rising crop of poke-only shops all over the city. I never reached the ecstatic state of cold beer, warm climate, and nourished soul that eating poke in Hawai'i provides, but I did eat some damned fine fish.
Spelling note: Some poke joints name themselves with an accent on the e in the hopes, perhaps, of teaching us that it's pronounced "poh-kay," not poke. But there's no accented e in Hawai'i—that's a mainland affectation.
A brief primer on what makes good poke. Start with the best cuts of fish—tuna or salmon, though you can find scallop and octopus poke as well as vegan options. Ahi tuna is the traditional choice. Feel free to grill your server on exactly what they're calling ahi and how it was fished; check the tuna listing on Seafood Watch to learn more. Skip the blue fin and the big eye; they're both overfished. Color isn't as important as you'd think—it's tempting to err on the side of that ruby red grapefruit hue, but you want fish free from sinew and other membranes. The meat should be firm, not mushy, and have a mild, not-fishy flavor.
Seattle is a seafood town; you can't pass poor-quality fish off on us pescatarians. Wanderfish Poké and Poke Alice both had immaculate bites of ahi, though the other places I tried were also notably high quality.
Then there's the sauce. Or is it marinade? It depends. Some places mix the sauce in with your fish while they build your bowl, while others coat the fish and it marinates while you make up your mind or during your wait, as at GoPoké. Classic marinade is simple: soy sauce (or tamari, gluten-free friends—there are options!) with sesame oil, sweet onion, a little salt, sesame seeds, chili flakes, and maybe some seaweed. GoPoké also has a Sweet SriRachee—it's got a spicy bite that's sweet underneath.
The places that marinate their fish in advance tended to be a bit heavier on the sauce than those that mix while you build your bowl. Aioli is a common variation too; the Seattle Fish Guys' version is rich with garlic. I don't like my fish—which doesn't have a super strong flavor to begin with—to be overpowered by the sauce, but one of my co-tasters preferred a higher sauce-to-fish ratio. Start with the classic version if you're not sure; it tends to be lighter.
You don't need to eat a lot of poke to feel full, because it's so rich. It's not cheap, either—a good cut of tuna will set you back $17 or more a pound. (A poke bowl runs about $9 to $13.) If you want quantity, Costco makes quite respectable poke, and it's certainly the best deal in town. The folks at the deli told me it's packed fresh daily. Pro tip: Check the date on the box before you toss it in the cart. I didn't realize I'd grabbed one that was packed two days earlier. (No regrets, it was good, but the fresher it is, the better.) Costco's fish cuts weren't as immaculately prepped as the other places I tried, but the flavor was good, the fish wasn't buried in sauce, and if you need to make a pile of poke tacos for your friends (or, hell, yourself—I won't judge), this is the way to go.
There were two other poke joints I tried on the Hill—Poké Bar and Broadway Poke & Sushi. Broadway Poke & Sushi was empty at lunch hour on a Monday—not a good sign. I decided to take one for the team, and I'm not sorry; the fish was perfect, though the sauce was a little sweet for my taste. Poké Bar's fish was mushy. This was the last stop on my poke tour, and my tolerance for less than perfect fish had hit rock bottom.
Sam Choy's Poke to the Max checked the boxes on my emotional ties to the food—the bright open dining area, the indulgent servers, plus the plates are beautiful. My tacos were so photogenic, they looked like they'd been designed for Instagram. But I'd eaten too much poke that week, and I found the flavors too plain. I liked everything I tried, but I wanted the flavors to sing more.
My favorite? A solid tie between Wanderfish and GoPoké. Both offered choice cuts of fish, an array of alternatives to traditional poke, and a fine variety of toppings. And both are cute, fun places to eat.
What's With All This Poke, Anyway?
During this poke binge, I collected theories about why we've gone poke-mad in Seattle over the past two years or so. A few contenders:
• There's a significant Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population in Cascadia.
• We've got a weird sort of synergy with Hawai'i in Puget Sound, so it makes sense we'd adopt Hawaiian food in a larger way.
• We're a port town, a seafood town, so we love to eat fish; poke is just the latest incarnation of that.
• A poke shop opened in New York and sparked a trend, so now everyone wants in.
• As restaurant configurations go, this one is easy—you don't have to cook anything.
But all of it is ultimately inconclusive. The best answer was casually tossed over the counter as I was noodling on toppings for my poke bowl at Wanderfish (pickled ginger, seaweed salad, wasabi, and furikake).
Yeah, that's probably it. And if you're curious: Yes, you can totally get poke in a burrito.