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In case you missed it, D.C. is crushing hard on poke. Or at least that’s what restaurant owners are banking on. Two poke shops—Poké Papa and Abunai Poke—opened this month, and at least two others, including Poki District and Honeyfish Poke, are on their way. The jury is still out on whether District denizens will welcome the trend, but what do local Hawaii transplants think of the invasion?
We asked Maui-born Tiffany MacIsaac, owner of Buttercream Bakeshop in Shaw, to rank the six signature poke bowls at Poké Papa (806 H St. NW) from her favorite to her least favorite. Overall, she’s happy to have a taste of home.
“I’m always an advocate for raw fish and I love rice. So this, to me, is ideal,” she says. “It’s a really good, healthy way to eat, and it’s how a lot of people eat in Hawaii because it’s just very fresh. I’m interested to see how many are going to take off because they look like they’re trying to build a model that can expand.”
You can get poke almost anywhere in Hawaii, including grocery stores and convenience stores. “I remember when Kyle [Bailey] and I went to Hawaii for the first time,” MacIsaac says. “We went to Foodland and asked for a quarter pound of each kind of poke, and Kyle was like, ‘You shouldn’t eat raw fish from a grocery store called Foodland.’ I was like, ‘No, it’s different here.’ We sat in the car and housed all of it before we left the parking lot.”
She says tuna, salmon, octopus, shrimp, and mussels are some of the most common sea creatures used to make poke in Aloha land, but don’t expect rice.
“If you went to a restaurant, they might serve it with rice, but poke itself is just the fish,” MacIsaac says. “That’s what’s confused me about the poke craze. The bowl is all the other stuff. The fish part is the poke part. But I get it—there wouldn’t be a market if you didn’t dress it up like this.”
When it comes to Poké Papa, MacIsaac is pleased. “It’s really crazy to me that you can get a bowl with a pile of fish on it like that for under $13 when at a salad place, it would be the same price for a small amount of meat,” she says. Her one complaint is that the warm rice quickly warps the temperature of the fish. If you eat it immediately, it shouldn’t be a problem, but she worries about throwing a lid on a fresh poke bowl and bringing it back to the office.
Poké Papa, owned by Kerry Chao, offers six signature bowls ($11.49-$12.99). Each comes with a base of mixed greens, white rice, brown rice, or black forbidden rice ($1 extra) and the following toppings: edamame, cucumber, pickled ginger, crab salad, and seaweed salad. If none of the signature bowls sound appealing, customers can also customize a poke bowl.
Here are MacIsaac’s rankings of Poké Papa’s signature bowls:
1. Onolicious with ahi tuna, marinated hijiki seaweed, lotus root, ginger, sesame, scallions, and onion
“This is definitely, for sure, hands down, by far in first place. I keep going back to this one because this is what I want when I think of poke. It’s so good. It makes me very happy that this exists.”
2. Lomi Homey with salmon marinated with red onion, tomatoes, scallions, sea salt, and fresh lime
“I love lomi lomi salmon, but it usually has more tomatoes and onions. This lomi lomi salmon is made for people who haven’t eaten it a lot. This is more for the masses.”
3. Volcano with spicy tuna, jalapeno, scallion, masago, cilantro, scallions, cucumber, molten lava sauce, and sesame seeds
“Usually when I get spicy poke, it would still be cubes of fish and then dressed. I like the flavor of this, but I don’t like how it’s all chopped up. I feel like the texture is not appealing to me in that massive quantity of fish. This is more what I think of going into a sushi roll, but the flavor’s great though.”
4. The Chicken Gai with minced cooked chicken, red onion, fish sauce, chilies, lime, toasted rice powder, kaffir lime leaf, tomato, and red onion
“No. 4 and No. 5 aren’t really poke, so I’m going with what I prefer. The chicken one is No. 4 and the ceviche one is No. 5. The chicken—this is really good. But if I were coming here I would want raw fish.”
5. The Beach Bum with shrimp, scallop, octopus, jalapeno, cilantro, fresh lime, sea salt
“Chefs take liberties with terms, so obviously poke has encompassed more than chopped raw fish. But I think that, again, this is for someone who doesn’t want to eat raw fish. It’s really light and really healthy. I do get that fishiness a little bit.”
6. Da Grinds with ahi tuna poke, lomi salmon, spicy tuna, ceviche, jalapeno
“For me it’s too many. There are a lot of different fish, but listen, to each their own.”
MacIsaac conferred with Chao and learned that, indeed, people who grew up in Hawaii come in and order the poke and rice with minimal toppings for a true taste of home. “That’s exactly what I would get,” MacIsaac says. “I would ask for all the other stuff on the side and mix it together and eat it as a salad on the side, and eat my poke separately. There’s just a lot going on in there.”
Poké Papa, 806 H St. NW; (202) 393-7653; pokepapa.com