Poke — the Hawaiian salad traditionally made with hunks of raw fish tossed in a light soy sauce blend — is having a moment. “It’s been trending on the West Coast and in New York,” says Akina Harada, a Hawaii native and the founder of Abunai Poke downtown. “D.C. is the next up-and-coming market.”
The versions offered at these “mainland” shops are a far cry from the fish-only preparations you’d encounter on the islands, which can feature only fish without the addition of rice. In Washington, you can stack your poke with zucchini noodles, tangerine, kale, sous-vide chicken and even a habanero-laced condiment one shop calls “lava sauce.” Here’s how the city’s catches compare.
This poke shop’s best-selling bowl is also one of its most basic. Dubbed the Onolicious, it’s made with tuna, lotus root, ginger, sesame, scallion and onion. More elaborate combinations include the Beach Bum (shrimp, scallop and octopus) and the Volcano bowl (spicy tuna, jalapeño, scallion, fish eggs, cilantro, sweet soy sauce and “lava sauce”). The dizzying menu offers additions like crab salad and coconut flakes, suggesting that it’s aiming for variety over authenticity. Poke Papa — owned by Kerry Chao, a Midwestern restaurateur — serves its poke over white rice, brown rice, mixed greens or black rice for a dollar surcharge. $12.99-$14.99. 806 H St. NW. 202-393-7653.
Harada founded her food truck, Abunai, two years ago, serving such classic Hawaiian dishes as Spam musubi and mochiko chicken. In April, she expanded her empire to include a bricks-and-mortar poke shop downtown. The menu is composed of five signature bowls she describes as “authentic with a modern approach.” I was most fond of the garlic ahi option, a biting combination of tuna, garlic, white onions, green onions, seaweed salad, rice, furikake (a seasoning of dried seaweed and sesame seeds) and a sauce made with soy sauce and sesame seed oil. This shop will appeal most to purists: The bowls are the least fussy. The Abunai, for example, is made simply with ahi, rice, Hawaiian seaweed and inamona, a nut-based condiment popular throughout Hawaii. $10-$13.50. 1920 L St. NW. 202-838-9718.
With no signature combinations to choose from, diners act as the architects of their own poke bowl at this Penn Quarter newcomer. Order from a choice of seven proteins (tuna filleted in-house, sous-vide chicken); 17 toppings (mango, corn and tangerine); six types of “crunch” (rice puffs, garlic chips); and seven sauces, including a sweet strawberry variety (huh?). Poki District founder Gary Ngo confirmed that there are six more locations in the works across the city. But, before you go, familiarize yourself with the online menu. On a recent visit, I saw a woman standing in line, debating between a base of sushi rice, brown rice with quinoa, zucchini noodles or spring lettuce mix. “I’m so overwhelmed,” she muttered to herself. $10.99-$12.99. 906 F St. NW.
Pokéworks, a rapidly expanding chain that debuted last year in New York, has 10 locations nationally, including one at Annandale’s the Block, a bustling food hall featuring stalls of Taiwanese shaved ice and Thai street food. Take your pick from eight signature bowls, including the spicy ponzu albacore, a tangy mix of tuna, green and sweet onion, mango, sesame seeds and ponzu. Keep an eye out for bora, an oily fish that’s a sustainable alternative to tuna. Although the accent over the “e” might make some native Hawaiians cringe, I favored the bowls at Pokéworks of all the restaurants for their clean flavors and superior sauces. $10.95-$13.50. The Block, 4221 John Marr Dr., Annandale. 571-830-6118.
Like Poki District, the bowls at Honeyfish are strictly build-your-own. This California-based chain opened its first location outside of the Golden State in a Rockville strip mall, with a downtown location opening shortly. Menu offerings include albacore tuna, octopus and salmon, plus a “premium seasonal” choice, such as blue crabmeat. Some of the more popular dressings — applied a little too heavily for my taste — include a tangy house ponzu sauce and spicy mayo. After ordering my bowl with salmon, spicy tuna, greens, carrots and Brussels sprouts, I got a strong case of poke envy after catching a glimpse of someone else’s bowl, topped with spicy tuna, green onion, avocado and creamy wasabi. Remember: This isn’t a Sweetgreen salad — you may want to go easy on the veggies. $10.95-$13.50. 1615 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 240-399-4477.