A mixture of bright red tuna, rubbery octopus, vegetables and pineapple glistened on a bed of white and brown rice – topped with ponzu, spicy mayo, white ginger, seaweed salad and vivid orange masago. The dish, called poke, smelled of the sea and waited for the plunge of a hungry student’s fork.
Originating in Hawaii, poke is becoming increasingly popular on the mainland – at least in West Los Angeles. A new restaurant, Poké Bar, opened March 20 on Westwood Boulevard, a mere three blocks from Poke Me, another poke restaurant. Santa Monica is also home to a poke restaurant, Sweetfin Poké, which will open its Westwood branch in early summer. UCLA students said they are not daunted by the prospect of choosing between them, however.
The upward trend in poke restaurants in Westwood is due to the relatively high-income status of the area’s residents and the high demand for fast, healthy food, said Yoon Ju, the founder of the Poké Bar chain.
Seth Cohen, co-founder of Sweetfin Poké, said he opened their flagship restaurant in Santa Monica in April 2015 because of the area’s need for fast, healthy food and its ability to afford $10-per-plate casual dining. The geographic location was ideal since poke is a raw fish dish and Santa Monica is right on the coast, he said.
Compared to other fast-casual options like burger joints, poke restaurants have relatively low startup costs when it comes to the kitchen equipment needed, Cohen said. He believes the trend will last to become as ubiquitous as sushi.
Every table in Westwood’s Poké Bar was full Sunday at 6 p.m. The restaurant’s menu is designed similarly to Chipotle or ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, where the customer first selects a base (like rice or spring mix), a number of proteins based on the size ordered (small to large), sauces, a selection of toppings and sides. All of these are piled onto a recyclable cardboard tray and mixed together to form poke.
Sam Rubenacker, a third-year computer science student, said after trying poke a few times in Orange County, he was happy to hear that it was in the area.
Fifth-year Italian student Stephina Pascho, who was eating at Poké Bar for the second time, said she became interested in poke because of its similarity to sushi.
“I love sushi, but getting poke is a lot cheaper than going to a sushi bar, so I decided to try it,” she said.
Pascho appreciated Poké Bar’s range of options. As a picky eater, she liked being able to personalize her meal, unlike at sushi bars where the extent of custom options is asking for something to be left off.
Opinions differed on the value of Poké Bar’s offerings. Rubenacker said Poké Bar was more expensive than restaurants in Orange County.
“You get a huge meal for $10,” Pascho said.
Pascho wasn’t confident in the stability of multiple poke restaurants in the same locale, however.
“(Poké Bar) is amazing, but I’m worried they’ll put each (other) out of business,” Pascho said.
The existence of two shops close to each other caused confusion for first-year bioengineering students Jacob Moulton and Andrew Schmidt. They met some friends for poke, and although they meant to meet up at Poké Bar, Moulton’s friends accidentally went to Poke Me instead.
Jacquie Williams, a third-year human biology and society student, brought her friend Mari Hercher, a third-year psychobiology student, to taste the dishes at Poké Bar. Williams said she was initially confused when she saw Poké Bar had moved in, since Poke Me is just across the street.
Williams and Hercher said having more poke places in Westwood is beneficial.
“They all get business, they all have to price off each other,” Hercher said. “There are a lot of students around, so it’s good.”