How Hawaiian Street Food Took Over Takeout

Kate Krader wrote . . . . . .

First there was the cupcake. Then cold-pressed juice. Now, poke.

Known as Hawaii’s original street food, poke (pronounced po-kay) today mostly consists of diced raw tuna, salmon, or some other fish, served over rice and mixed greens, with add-ons such as edamame, avocado, seaweed, and toasted nuts. And suddenly it’s everywhere.

The dish ticks multiple boxes. It’s a fresh, healthy, high-protein, and, at about $13 a bowl, relatively inexpensive lunch or late-night working dinner. A poke bowl takes the efficiency and compose-it-yourself satisfaction of a Chopt salad and gives it the deluxe sheen of sushi.

But that doesn’t explain the dish’s swift march from Maui to Midtown. In the past two years, almost 300 Hawaiian restaurants have opened in the U.S., the majority of them featuring poke, and for one exquisitely simple reason: To open a poke place, all you need is an electrical outlet to cook the rice and a refrigeration unit for the fish. This also makes it easier to get landlords to approve—they’ll always prefer a restaurant that doesn’t require noisy venting systems and smelly cooking.

“A chef who wants a decent kitchen will pay $500,000 just for that,” says LB Realty Services LLC principal Leslie Siben, who’s worked on New York restaurant projects such as the Meatpacking District anchor Buddakan. “Just venting a space can cost a few hundred thousand dollars.” Poke sidesteps those concerns, because there’s no industrial-strength stove.

Sweetcatch Poke, a New York spot across the street from Citigroup Center and around the corner from the $30 million-plus revamp of the former Four Seasons, sells as many as 800 bowls a day of a traditional poke with marinated fish. Owner Bobby Kwak has hired Top Chef star Lee Anne Wong and Kohei Kishida, a disciple of New York sushi chef Eiji Ichimura, to oversee the menu. Kwak also plans to open a 3,000-square-foot flagship south of Times Square at a projected cost of $600,000. “It would have been three times as much if it had a real kitchen,” he says. “Poke is a winning formula.”

At the new Poke Chan, on the edge of Koreatown, maestro Masashi Ito doesn’t use the same Japanese imported fish as he does at Sushi Zo, where meals run north of $200. But Ito, who grew up in Hawaii, employs similar techniques to prepare it. An outpost opened in April on William Street in New York’s financial district, and there are plans to colonize Miami and Las Vegas.

The business of poke is attracting the Wall Street crowd as owners, not just customers. Drew Crane used to work in Goldman Sachs’s Asset Management division. A trip to Hawaii and an assessment of the lack of good, high-protein food options convinced him to transform a 750-square-foot former jewelry store in Chelsea into Wisefish Poke. (He says it wasn’t hard to make the space a proper poke spot.)

In Los Angeles, Mainland Poke is expanding with customizable sauces and seafood ranging from toro to octopus to salmon belly. The craze has even spread to London, where former Nobu Europe executive Kurt Zdesar has opened an upscale, dimly lit sit-down spot called Black Roe Poke Bar & Grill.

If there’s one thing that can halt the spread of poke, it’s limited resources. Owners may pay lip service to freshness and sustainability, but the most popular order is the tuna bowl, and stocks of most tuna varieties are declining and prices are rising.

Others still see an opportunity. Pokee NYC co-owner Sa Wang is targeting students. She invested $300,000 to open a location near New York University; another restaurant is under construction not far from the University of Virginia. Says Pokee NYC manager Angel Li: “That part of Virginia doesn’t have a lot of poke. Yet.”

Source: Bloomberg