We check out three poké brands so you don't have to, in FT Undercover
Poké arrives on the mainland. From left, the Hawaiian bowl at Pokéworks, Aloha Poké’s house bowl and a Maui Heat Wave bowl at Lemonshark.
After interviewing Chef Sheldon Simeon and hearing him talk about the Lava Bowl he created, I was even more excited to check out Pokéworks while in Phoenix. A worker happily obliged with a sample, handing over a small cube of ahi tuna dipped in Lava sauce. After escaping the 115-degree oven outside, however, the ghost pepper and Thai chili heat was too much to take and my attention turned to the dizzying number of combinations laid out assembly-line style in front of me. Did I want scallops instead of tuna? Seaweed, kale or shiso? Not to mention the dozens of sauces and toppings I imagine are the stuff of an operator’s inventory nightmare. Pokéworks smartly has a selection of “signature works,” poké bowls in a variety of preselected combinations. The classic Hawaiian bowl looked like a winner and a couple minutes later tasted like one with its mix of ahi tuna, onion, seaweed, cucumber, chili flakes, sesame oil and light shoyu soy sauce that thankfully didn’t mask the meaty flavor of the raw fish. Perhaps spoiled by travels to Maui and Oahu, where poké is served amply diced, the small cubes at Pokéworks were a tad disappointing but the bowl overall was a satisfying trip across the Pacific for just $11.95.
The upshot: While it won’t be mistaken for a poké bowl served on the islands, Pokéworks is adept at sharing the Hawaiian cuisine with a broader audience on the mainland. — LM
Tucked in the back of Revival Food Hall in Chicago, Aloha Poké has stiff competition for customers. They have to ignore the delicious smells wafting from Smoque BBQ, cooked Low and Slow as the sign says, and pass by the welcoming horsehoe-shaped marble bar serving beer and wine at Danke. The Aloha Poké shop’s best feature is the old school human being parked in front of the counter, who helps newcomers quickly fill out the order form. Step one, choose your size: little, big or kahuna. Step two, choose your base: white rice, brown rice, mixed greens or nothing. Then it gets complicated; you can choose up to two kinds of poké, usually meaning raw fish but here also including tofu and cooked chicken or shrimp. I go for the house Aloha bowl, because the flavors and ingredients are preselected. It’s $10.50 for the big size, with pineapple, cucumber, scallions, jalapeno and Maui onion. The veggies and fruit are satisfyingly crunchy and flavorful, with a pop from the jalapeno that makes me happy I bypassed the less healthy options.
The upshot: Crisp mouthfuls of veggies bursting with flavor are a plus, but over-sauced and hence mushy and indistinguishable ahi tuna and salmon defeat the purpose of a fresh poké bowl. —BE
I’ll have to knock Lemonshark Poké for one of my pet peeves: gorgeous food photography on the brochure, with long slices of fresh avocado, slim and cool radishes fanned artfully on the side and especially fat pieces of beautifully marbled raw fish in a bright color, all topped with distinctive black sesame seeds. In real life, though, the avocado in my small Maui Heat Wave for $10.95 was chopped into bits and the tuna was minced soooo tiny and smooshed into a ball. Add the forlorn location on the second floor of a train station, with absolutely no customers mid-afternoon on a weekday, with the array of ingredients including fish sitting for who knows how long on the cold line, and it has to be said: Houston, or to be precise Beverly Hills, California, where Lemonshark is based, we have a problem. Yelp reviews for the only Chicago location are unkind and the robotic responses from corporate do nothing to address the concerns. Two bright spots: satisfying pieces of fresh ginger and plenty of crunch from carrots and crispy garlic, plus a spicy sauce with plenty of kick. Otherwise, take my raw fish, please.
The upshot: Poké customers demand pristine fish that doesn’t look, taste or smell fishy, so this shop needs to reboot. —BE