Any way you spin it, the Poké boom is one of the biggest food trends of the last few years. Poké-focused fast casual spots are popping up around the US in record numbers. Food writers are pouring to op-ed pages to debate the merit of this expansion. It’s a big part of our food moment, and one I wanted to weigh in on.
If you aren’t familiar, Poké is Hawaiian-style ahi tuna, served raw and marinated. It’s usually served in colorful, social-friendly formats like salad bowls and sushi burritos. I think this instagrammy quality, coupled with Poke’s healthy perception (it’s low-carb, and heavily advertised at gyms), has fueled the dish’s explosive growth; Poké is everywhere, at fancy restaurants, trendy supermarkets, and especially fast-casual joints like Pokéworks in Davis Square.
I’ve been messing with Boston’s Poké scene a bit– there are plenty of better, more local places I’m hoping to weigh in on soon. But I thought I’d use Pokéworks as a jumping off point, because I know it best, and because it’s one of the nation’s largest chains, growing new branches continuously in practically every major North American city.
A sushi-rito from Pokéworks – seaweed wrap with scallops, cucumber, nori, and crab salad.
First, a few thoughts on the food as a whole: while definitely healthy, Poké is a fundamentally suspect dish. Not just because it isn’t cooked – raw fish isn’t unsafe by default, though it’s a dealbreaker for plenty of the tamer stomachs out there. The problem comes from sourcing the fish from Hawaiian waters – even on the west coast, odds are, when you eat Poké, you’re not eating something very fresh. This doesn’t necessarily stop it from being delicious, of course, but it’s something to consider.
Second – for better and for worse, the fast-casual format that lends itself so naturally to Poké kind of robs the food of some of its authenticity. Any way you cut it, a $12 Poké bowl in Somerville, Massachusetts can’t possibly compare to the beautiful dishes you’d chow down on in Hawaii. This provides an incentive for fast-casual restaurants to make their creations as colorful and visually beautiful as possible, which is great, but not what eating out should be about.
Finally, on the most basic level – fast-casual customization means that ingredients swirl together in a big, flavorful mess. To be real, this is one of my favorite ways of eating – I call it a garbage bowl. But the difference between different garbage bowls – and even different bites of the same garbage bowl – makes it hard to truly taste the ingredients. See below for a great example.
(Poké salad with salmon, ahi tuna, pickled ginger, masago, edamame, mango, macadamia nuts, and cucumbers, and sriracha aioli)
No matter what combination of the nearly infinite toppings you go with, everything at Pokéworks is going to taste relatively similar. For better, if you like that taste, and for worse, if you’re looking for a truly unique experience.
Now, my actual review:
If there’s one thing Pokéworks does best, it’s make sure no one will ever leave hungry. The restaurant features pre-set dishes, but the staff will tell you to customize your own meal, to truly get your money’s worth.
You start with a burrito bowl, salad, or sushi burrito (seaweed paper and sticky rice). The sushi-ritos are awesome – everyone’s adept at rolling the seaweed wraps without the rice, very nice for someone like me who often finds themselves trying to eat everything in the world except carbs.
Then, you pick your proteins – two or three scoops of chicken, tofu, suspect shrimp, suspect scallops, suspect salmon, or two types of the eponymous suspect tuna. All of this meat tastes good, especially drenched in sauces and (hopefully) higher-quality veggies, but at this price point, you know you’re not getting that good-good Hawaiian stuff.
Your options then multiply with the choice of a zillion and one toppings – standard stuff like cucumbers and lettuce, but also a fair selection of different seaweeds. Say what you will about Pokéworks – regardless of quality, they give you some very authentic options. You pick a sauce, too, from an array of mainly Asian choices like sweet chili gochujang, shoyu sauce, wasabi aioli, etc. They’re all yummy, but nothing special.
There are also ingredients that must be added in just for color – bright green avocado, sun-colored mango, bright orange masago, etc. Big shout out to Pokéworks’ pickled ginger – in everything I’ve eaten there, it’s stood out as the most unique and best flavor. Finally, the place offers a variety of extra crunches – macadamia nuts, wonton crisps, shredded nori, etc.. A nice touch to finish your creation off.
I like Pokéworks – I like garbage bowls and huge, swirling combinations of flavor. It’s cheap and dependable, and it’s a go-to for a filling, healthy-ish lunch or dinner. But every time I stop by, I’m reminded that I’m just not eating the most original meal. That’s okay, sometimes, but sometimes it isn’t.
TL;DR: Fast-casual fish – endlessly customizable, for better and worse