Sushi. Ceviche. Crudo. We’ve seen our share of trending raw fish dishes, and the latest, poke, has arrived in Washington, riding a wave of popularity all the way from Hawaii.
“People don’t have this aversion to raw fish like they used to,” said Mikala Brennan, owner of Shirlington’s Hula Girl. “I think poke is just a natural evolution of it. People are very accepting of it.”
As with many long-standing dishes, the exact origins of poke are unclear. Hawaiians, particularly fishermen, have probably been eating it for hundreds of years, but the name caught on only about 50 years ago.
The standard fish used in poke (pronounced “POH-kay”) is tuna, said Brennan, who grew up in Hawaii. The seafood is typically cubed or chopped up, which is pretty much what “poke” means. Hula Girl’s most traditional take mixes the fish with sesame oil, soy sauce, chili water and scallions, echoing the islands’ Japanese influence.
Hula Girl also offers a poke made with salmon, tomato and onion and a version that departs from the raw nature of the dish with grilled octopus.
Even in Hawaii, “you get so many varieties of it,” Brennan said. A single shop may serve 20 poke dishes. “It’s very free-form,” she said. “There’s no rules or regulations. There’s no poke police.”
Chef Kevin Tien agreed. “There’s so many different ways that you can have poke,” he said. Tien, who also lived in Hawaii, operated a poke concept, Poke Pop, in the Penn Quarter pop-up space Prequel earlier this year.
Tien served his poke in fast-casual-friendly bowls, over sushi rice with sauces and vegetables. His riffs included Korean- and Vietnamese-accented dishes, with ingredients such as pickled vegetables and chili and nuoc cham dressings. Tien also let diners swap in tofu for the fish.
You’ll find poke in a variety of other incarnations around Washington, including with pesto and rice pearls at Daikaya and in a hand roll with papaya and shiso at Maki Shop. It’s also on the menu at Union Market’s the District Fishwife and the Poké-Man food truck.
“I think it’s fun that people are discovering this,” Brennan said. She’s hopeful poke will spark an interest in Hawaiian food in general. “If this is the gateway drug for people, then that’s great.”
4044 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va.; 703-998-4853
705 Sixth St. NW; 202-589-1600
1522 14th St. NW; 202-545-6333
The District Fishwife
1309 Fifth St. NE; 202-543-2592
Poké-Man food truck
Various Northern Virginia locations; 703-828-4733