This Hawai‘i Local Tried Poke in NYC—Here’s the Verdict
One poke aficionado who’s lived in both New York City and Honolulu rates the top poke bowls in N.Y.C.
The New York Times article posted in Sons of Thunder.
Photos: James Charisma
Turns out the latest food trend sweeping the Big Apple is a favorite mainstay from Hawai‘i: poke.
Sometimes spelled with an accent on the letter E, presumably so people won’t pronounce the word like it rhymes with “joke,” poke bowls have become the current hip dish in Manhattan from the Upper West Side to the South Street Seaport. It’s not as popular as the ubiquitous New York City hot dog or slice of pizza, but, for many newer Japanese restaurants and sushi spots throughout Manhattan, poke or poke bowls are the new must-have menu item.
This fascinated me. As someone who was raised between both New York and Hawai‘i, I was intrigued by Manhattan’s interpretation of this classic local dish. To be honest, I’m not sure why poke hadn’t appeared on the East Coast sooner. This city is no stranger to high-quality raw fish and sushi, or freshly prepared crudo, ceviche and steak tartare—similar types of mixed uncooked protein. In fact, New York is often the place launching the trends that we only later find out about and try to catch up on (remember the ramen burger?).
So, on a recent trip to New York City, I had to try Manhattan’s poke for myself. There were so many questions. Would the fish be fresh? Would the sauce be right? Would the rice be right? And the biggest of them all: could you order a poke bowl right off Times Square and actually get something that could rival what you might receive in Hawai‘i, from the likes of Alicia’s Market, Maguro Bros., Poke Stop, Fresh Catch, Da Poke Shack, Foodland or Safeway?
Too many places offered poke for me to try them all, so I used one article as a guide: “The Absolute Best Poke Bowl in New York,” published in February by New York Magazine’s food blog, Grub Street. It outlined the five best poke bowls in the city. Counting down, they are:
5. Spicy Tuna Bowl, Maui Onion, $12.99 regular
Maui Onion smells like wasabi and warm rice right as you walk in, a promising start. With an assembly-line preparation where you choose your toppings, this is the Chipotle Mexican Grill of raw fish. I scan the menu to find poke served in bowls over white or brown rice, over salad, as temaki hand rolls or—brace yourself—in burrito form (essentially humongous hand rolls).
I order a spicy tuna bowl. As a purist, I skip Grub Street’s suggestion to “ask for Pringles-crispy garlic chips,” tempting as it sounds, in favor of a straight bowl of just fish and rice. It’s still served with scallions, raw red onion, black umami hijiki, pickled cucumber slices and ginger. The man behind the counter mixes the cubes of raw ‘ahi with a spicy mayo sauce in a stainless steel salad bowl in front of me.
And it’s pretty tasty. The fish is fresh and cut properly without any chewy white sinews. The rice isn’t crunchy or mushy. While the milky sauce could be spicier, it’s not far off from Hawai‘i’s own spicy ‘ahi flavors. You’re also not forced to take a mountain of toppings like other places I’ve seen. Sure, you can go crazy like you’re building a sandwich at Subway with add-ons such as edamame, garlic chips, seaweed salad or crab meat. But if you’re just looking for a straight poke bowl, you essentially get it.
What surprised me most was the hijiki. I don’t remember encountering the little black seaweed strands in Hawai‘i poke bowls too often, but it works. The rich umami flavor helps offset the spicy bite of the ‘ahi without interrupting the flavor of the fish.
35 W. 26th St., (212) 377-5120, mauionion.com
4. Poke Me Bowl, 2nd City, $14.95
I was feeling good after Maui Onion, but 2nd City threw me for a loop. A small shop decorated with paintings of farm animals, street graffiti, neon signs and skateboards, 2nd City bills itself as a Filipino restaurant, but you can’t tell that by looking at the menu selections which include ramen, nachos, pork belly buns, burritos and a specialty cheeseburger. That and a “Poke Me” bowl with sushi-grade tuna over coconut-steamed rice served with scallions, wonton chips, carrots, avocado and pickled sweet red onions.
When the bowl arrives, it’s as colorful as it sounds. I appreciate the varying textures between the crunchy chips and onions and soft avocado, but the ‘ahi is coated in a sweet miso sauce that tastes like Asian salad dressing. The proportions are strange too, with way too much shaved carrot and just a thin bottom layer of the rice, not enough to handle the rest of the bowl. There’s a subtle taste of coconut in the white rice but it’s also deliberately chilled, which is a real turnoff.
It doesn’t help that the bowl costs $15, one of the priciest options on this list. I feel like I’ve been duped. Just call this poke bowl what it is: Chinese chicken salad, except hold the chicken and add glazed ‘ahi. Bleh.
525 Hudson St., (917) 639-3262, 2ndcityusa.com
3. Tuna-and-Salmon Bowl, Sons of Thunder, $11.50
Just hearing the name “Sons of Thunder” has me apprehensive. I half expect another colorful bar blasting music but, instead, I find a simple counter and spacious wood-and-white back dining room. The recommended dish here is the half-‘ahi tuna, half-salmon poke bowl. I don’t order additional side items, but the bowl still arrives with lettuce, seaweed salad, diced cucumber and sliced radish. The fish is tasty, in decent-size cubes, and the classic shoyu sauce tastes of sesame and ginger. The rice is warm and fluffy, just as it should be.
I’m not a fan of the Mainland seaweed salad, which seems to add a fishy taste that actual fresh seafood doesn’t have. But maybe that’s a personal preference; most of the New York poke spots I’ve read about or visited seemed to have that as a must-have item. John Kim, who co-owns Sons of Thunder with his brother James (and who happens to be taking my order), agrees: “We know we can’t compete with Hawai‘i’s excellent quality and freshness, but this is our interpretation of a poke bowl. We’re going to give you fish, a bit of greens, a little seaweed salad and what we think New Yorkers want,” he says.
It’s John who also explains the restaurant’s moniker: He and his brother share the names of the rambunctious apostles John and James, who Jesus referred to in the New Testament as “sons of thunder.” Their original plan was to sell cheeseburgers but, when their gas never got turned on, they opted instead for poke bowls (their Korean grandparents had immigrated to Hawai‘i, so they were familiar with the dish). The Sons of Thunder were the first and everybody followed—at least in New York City. James tells me he’s had customers come in saying they’ve heard of poke places as far off as Dubai and Portugal.
204 E. 38th St., (646) 863-2212, sonsofthunder.com
2. Big-Eye Tuna Poke, Noreetuh, $19
Noreetuh bills itself as a modern Hawaiian restaurant, serving dishes such as mochiko chicken wings, Spam agnoletti (ravioli), pineapple braised pork belly and King’s Hawaiian bread pudding in an elegant East Village setting. Roosevelt alum Chung Chow opened the restaurant two years ago. But, despite its distance from Hawai‘i, Noreetuh seems sufficiently rooted in the Islands. (Bonus points for having the latest issue of HONOLULU Magazine and Hana Hou! in the bathroom as well as artwork by Hawai‘i illustrator Kris Goto.)
The poke here isn’t served over rice, which disqualifies it as a “poke bowl” (c’mon, Grub Street) but the quality is excellent. Big-eye tuna in a traditional shoyu sauce, chopped toasted macadamia nuts, slices of pickles for a spicy heat and assorted limu, a mix of seaweed and briny saltwort. The original seaweed salad, if you will. The small pieces of macadamia play well, as do the slices of snow ear mushroom that Noreetuh adds—normally a staple in Chinese dishes including hot and sour soup and lo han jai.
My server is Roger Alcain, originally from Kona, who tells me he’s seen the poke craze really take off in New York City the past two years. His customers have mentioned having poke in London. If what they’re serving in England tastes anything like what’s at Noreetuh, they’re doing well. I’ll say it: this is Hawai‘i-quality poke. It’s not cheap at $19 but this is the real deal.
128 First Ave., (646) 892-3050, noreetuh.com
1. Sichuan Chili Salmon Bowl, Chikarashi, $12.99 regular
Right on the edge of Chinatown, Chikarashi (a play on Japanese “chirashi” bowls with raw fish and vegetables) looks about as simple as they come with the same blond wood covering its walls, floor, bar and stools. The menu is simple too: 12 different poke bowls including bluefin and yellowfin tuna, salmon, tofu plus a rotating daily special. I go for the Sichuan Chili Salmon Bowl served with Scottish salmon, furikake, kuri (chestnuts), shoyu daikon and topped with green onions and mixed with katsu panko.
Food culture blurs in Manhattan. This is a city where you can order sushi at a burger joint, get Cuban plantains at a Chinese diner or find Japanese-inspired Mexican tacos. So, while the notion of poke made with Sichuan chili and a Sansho mayonnaise (prepared in-house with fresh eggs and rice-wine vinegar) seems strange, it works, thanks to Chikarashi’s chef Michael Lim, formerly of Michelin-rated N.Y.C. hotspots Neta and Masa.
The pieces of diced raw salmon are smaller but delicious. The whole dish tastes clean, unmuddled by extra ingredients. No lettuce. No corn. What Lim adds helps. The fish flake panko is a smart touch, mixing with the furikake and adding complexity. The warm daikon works in the place of raw sliced onion.
This is not the poke bowl you’d get in Hawai‘i; it’s a smart and effective alternative. Chikarashi has taken the concept and legitimately made it its own. On the way out, I was tempted by a scoop of Dole Whip—Chikarashi is also the first spot in New York City to offer the frozen treat.
227 Canal St., (646) 649-5965, chikarashi.com
Bonus: Classic Hawaiian Shoyu Bowl, Sweetcatch Poke, $12.95
It was only after I ran through Grub Street’s list that I discovered local chef Lee Anne Wong had a poke spot in the city too. I visit the midtown location and find another assembly line, build-your-own-bowl setup. Going with the “Classic Hawaiian Shoyu” option of shoyu sauce, ogo, sesame seeds, sea salt, and sweet and green onions, I’m offered four kinds of white rice with or without sesame seeds, or brown rice. And greens—kale marinated with a honey and lemon juice vinaigrette or mixed greens—if I choose.
Dealer’s choice, I say. I get the plain white rice and marinated kale. I also get to choose three additional toppings from a list of options that include seaweed salad, pickled ginger, crab salad, pineapple, garlic crisps and crispy rice puffs. Premium toppings including mango or avocado are available for a few extra bucks. Behind the counter, there’s a cooler of various Hawaiian Sun drinks. The woman assembling my bowl tells me her favorite is the pink Pass-o-Guava, which I think is everybody’s favorite.
The fish is good and the rice is warm but I’m still troubled by the presence of pineapple. What’s happening here?
642 Lexington Ave., (212) 593-1020, sweetcatchpoke.com
To me, the question is, when people try poke bowls all around the world with any-kine ingredients, do they know it’s better in Hawai‘i? Do they just assume that Hawai‘i poke bowls also come with seaweed salad and kale? Do they even know the dish comes from here?
This is the real issue, I think. Not that New York City or London or Dubai (?!) may be selling poke bowls filled with crazy toppings, but that they’ve got Hawai‘i’s name on them. It’s like a food franchise with no quality control.
Love it or hate it, if people can try a poke bowl anywhere in the world and at least recognize that while it’s probably something similar in concept—but not necessarily in flavor—to what’s in Hawai‘i, then that’s reasonable. But if they’re thinking the official poke of Hawai‘i is this raw fish cold stir-fry salad, then they might as well call it Poké, a totally new dish.