Seth Cohen and Brett Nestadt were a couple of years out of college when they set out to reshape lunch culture in America’s largest cities by opening a poke restaurant.
A marinated raw fish dish ubiquitous in Hawaii, poke (pronounced poh-kay) has crossed over to the mainland in a big way. At least a half dozen shops specializing in poke have popped up in chic L.A. neighborhoods over the past year, and versions of it are turning up in cities across the U.S.
That includes Sweetfin, the restaurant Cohen and Nestadt opened in Santa Monica five months ago. For $10, customers can devour a bowl of sashimi-grade tuna heaped on top of rice, or greens, such as citrus kale salad, with a wide range of accompaniments (think avocado, edamame, and scallions). Marinades range from a more traditional mix of soy sauce and sesame oil to creamy togarashi, Sweetfin's take on Japanese spicy mayo.
Santa Monica is the beginning of what Nestadt and Cohen hope will be the first nationally branded poke chain. They are already looking to expand to Ventura Boulevard, the San Fernando Valley thoroughfare known locally as “sushi row.”
“Poke is the natural progression from sushi,”’ says Nestadt, who first met Cohen at the University of Southern California. The origins of poke stretch back to the early days of Hawaiian civilization, when people ate raw fish with such seasoning as algae and Hawaiian salt.
After the two Trojans decided poke was ripe for an American invasion, they found willing partners in hospitality veteran Alan Nathan and former Top Chef contestant Dakota Weiss.
Rather than copy the poke one finds in Hawaii, which is sold at every super market and beachside hut, Sweetfin offers a bevy of unusual toppings such as kelp noodles, pickled mushrooms and blistered shishito peppers—all made in-house. While most poke in Hawaii involves onion, limu (algae), and nuts, Nestadt and Cohen wanted to use more ingredients from Californian and Asian cuisines.
To please those health-conscious California eaters, Sweetfin also offers fully vegetarian options that keep the same flavors and accoutrements while replacing the tuna and salmon with tofu and vegetables.
“It’s a basic dish you can play with and make your own,” says Janice Wald-Henderson, author of The New Cuisine of Hawaii. “It’s open to modern interpretation, which makes it fun. Every poke can be a surprise.” It’s not uncommon to see versions in the islands made of salmon or octopus.
And in Los Angeles, land of the $40 sushi lunch, it can also be a bargain.
“We have people substituting that type of meal for Sweetfin, and that craving for sushi is satisfied for less than $15,” Nestadt says. “That is one of the reasons it’s become so popular in L.A., and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before it does in other metropolitan areas.’’ Sweetfin has doubled the amount of fish it buys per week since opening in April, increasing it from 700 pounds to 1500 pounds. Daily sales have jumped 40 percent.
Several chefs have reached the same conclusion. Kayson Chong opened Mainland Poke Shop on West Third Street, home to lunch spots Joan's on Third and Son of a Gun, while Poke Bar offers poke with quinoa and kale along the Sunset Strip. Eric Park, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, shuttered a sandwich shop in downtown Los Angeles and gastropub in the city’s Silver Lake neighborhood to reopen them as the first and second branches of Ohana Poke Co.
Fans of Park’s successful Silver Lake eatery were disappointed at first—until they heard his rationale. The father of two was eager to spend less time in the kitchen and more time with his family. He felt a solid, simple, lunch-oriented restaurant concept would help him do that.
He was already eating poke on a regular basis and served his rendition for his staff during the daily meal. Eventually, they insisted he share his creations with their loyal customers. Park offers an assortment of sauces, such as shiso radish and sweet unagi, that blend his Korean heritage with his French formal training.
He took the name for his poke shop from his son’s love of Lilo and Stitch, the Pixar animated movie about the unlikely friendship between a young Hawaiian girl and an extraterrestrial. (Ohana, in Hawaiin culture, means “family.”) His wife helps him out at the store.
While Sweetfin and Ohana have different origins, their founders share a similar ambition: creating a neighborhood restaurant that attracts a mixture of locals and business people.
“It’s got everything people today are looking for in food,” says Wald-Henderson. “It’s fresh-tasting and bold-flavored without a lot of calories. All these factors play into poke’s popularity, and there’s one more: It’s really easy to eat.”
The simple dish is making appearances in other foodie destinations. It’s on the menu at Chef Jesse Sandole's restaurants in Charleston and Nantucket, where he serves the dish with tortilla chips, for example. It’s shown up in Chicago, Wshington, and Boulder, Colo. And alumni of Per Se offer two versions—one with octopus and one with big-eye tuna— at their Hawaiian restaurant in the East Village.
Classic Tuna Poke Recipe:
1/4 cup gluten free soy sauce
1/4 cup gluten free soy sauce
1 each lemon juice
1/4 sesame oil
1/8 cup chile oil
Add all ingredients together and mix well
1 pound cubed tuna
1 Tbsp mixed sesame seed
1/4 shaved sweet white onions
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp chopped scallions
Pinch of salt
Then toss the fish with the sauce and serve over steamed rice.