From the success of restaurants in Westwood like 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria, Bella Pita, ShopHouse Kitchen and Chipotle, it’s obvious that students enjoy buying food from places that allow for creativity and choice by letting the customer call the shots. Since we college students know everything, it’s not surprising that we would also know how to create the best dish at each restaurant.
But if you’re stuck in Westwood this winter break and already tired of the Italian, Mediterranean, Southeast Asian and Mexican chains, it’s time you try the two new build-your-own poke bowl restaurants that have popped up on Westwood Boulevard. Cue Poke Me and Poké Bar, where you can finally custom-design your own raw fish wonder dish, instead of ordering your usual sushi roll at Ami Japanese Restaurant.
Yet while the topping choices at 800 Degrees and Chipotle are pretty straightforward, the toppings available at these two poke spots can be slightly overwhelming, especially if you’re used to the “point and hope for the best” method when dining at Japanese restaurants.
The first toppings that will most likely trip you up are masago and tobiko. Masago is a type of fish eggs, more specifically, the roe of the capelin fish. It is often confused with tobiko, which is flying fish roe, as they are both small, orange and crunchy. Tobiko is more expensive than masago because the eggs are slightly larger and are known for having a more distinct flavor profile. At Poke Me, tobiko costs a dollar more than the other toppings.
Tamago, also known as the Japanese omelet, is another topping you may not be familiar with. Made by rolling together many layers of cooked egg, tamago has a light and airy texture and is often used in sushi rolls. Before the beaten eggs are poured into the pan to cook, they can be mixed with sugar, soy sauce and mirin, which is a rice vinegar that is low in alcohol but high in sugar content, making the omelet somewhat sweet to taste.
If you’ve ever eaten sushi, then nori, the Japanese name for edible seaweed, needs no introduction. Don’t let the addition of the word kizami throw you off. Kizami nori is just the shredded version of nori sheets and is used to garnish many Japanese dishes. This topping adds a salty, slightly grassy flavor to any dish, as well as a subtly crunchy texture.
Bonito flakes, known as katsuobushi in Japanese, may sound a bit intimidating once you discover that the flakes are dried bits of fermented and smoked skipjack tuna. But don’t let this stop you from adding it to your poke bowl. Bonito flakes provide that smoky, umami flavor you might recognize from many Japanese soups and broths. This is because bonito flakes are included in the recipe for dashi, the cooking stock used to make miso soup and ramen broth.
Now that you have a good handle on the toppings, you’re ready to choose your sauce. Most of the sauces offered at Poke Me are variations of ponzu sauce. The base for ponzu includes sweet mirin, citrus, bonito flakes and edible kelp (kombu), resulting in a refreshing, light sauce. Ingredients such as soy sauce, spices or the East Asian citrus fruit, yuzu, can alter the flavor, which is why Poke Me offers a variety of different ponzu sauces.
If you want to try something a little more adventurous, I suggest choosing gochujang instead. This is not a typical Japanese sauce – in fact, it’s not Japanese at all. Gochujang is a Korean condiment made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt. It definitely adds a subtle kick of spice, but once you get through the heat, the depth of flavor adds a whole new complexity to your standard poke bowl.
With this new knowledge, you are now equipped to order yourself the perfect poke bowl. So next time you’re deciding where to eat in Westwood or what to order on Uber Eats, don’t hesitate to choose Poke Me, Poke Bar or the soon-to-arrive Sweetfin Poké. After all, you can’t be a poke bowl expert until you actually try all the toppings. Maybe not all at once, as more is not necessarily better, but yes, that was a challenge.