poke at boundary photo by carmen troesser

Hawaiian poke is having a big moment in St. Louis

Poke (POH-kay) is hardly a new culinary phenomenon, but in recent years the marinated raw fish dish landed on the mainland from its native Hawaii. A fast-spreading trend on the East and West Coasts, where food trucks and poke-centric restaurants have proliferated, the dish is showing up in traditional and iconoclastic incarnations on St. Louis menus.

Named for the Hawaiian term meaning to slice or cut crosswise into pieces, poke isn’t as composed or rule-bound as sashimi and doesn’t have the acidity of ceviche or pesce crudo. It’s meant to be simple, fresh and portable with the flavor of the raw fish front and center, marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil with various accompaniments, sometimes served over sushi rice. “It’s kind of a deconstructed or inside-out sushi roll,” said Pieces co-owner Laura Leister-Lettau.

“I’m Polynesian and Filipino, so I have a lot of island in me,” she said. “I have family in California and Hawaii, so every time I go back there I always indulge in a poke bowl.”

midwest poke bowls at pieces // photo by carmen troesser

But the poke on the menu at Leister-Lettau’s board game bar and cafe doesn’t adhere to the traditional Hawaiian formula of the marinated raw fish salad. Pieces took advantage of poke’s freeform structure to experiment with a Midwest poke bowl: marinated sushi rice, green tea-infused cucumbers, red chile-marinated edamame and an array of raw local vegetables to which diners can add seared tofu, chicken or barbecue pork.

“Surprisingly enough, it’s our most popular dish,” Leister-Lettau said. “It’s one thing we’ll never take off our menu.”

Vegan restaurant Lulu’s Local Eatery works with a similarly loose definition of poke, subbing out fish for watermelon “sashimi” in its new poke-stuffed avocado boat starter and sushi bowl entree. Filled with sushi rice, watermelon sashimi, avocado, cucumber, radish, scallions, pickled ginger and spicy mayo, the bowl has surprisingly traditional flavor for fish-free poke. The watermelon is pressed to a bizarrely sashimi-like texture, and could almost fool you, if not for the telltale crisp bite of the melon.

“We went to Kauai last year and were really inspired,” said co-owner Lauren Loomis. “We’re also excited about the sustainability factor, too, because we can get local watermelon this summer.”

At Crave Street Food, chef-co-owner Chris Ayala serves up a short list of poke cups. One variation that recently graced the menu included what he called “fauxnagi,” made with catfish instead of eel. Ayala said catfish is surprisingly similar in texture to its Japanese cousin, and more familiar to area diners who might balk at noshing on the serpentine fish. He utilized another element of southern cooking with a cornbread tempura-battered shrimp in this Catfish Dragon poke cup, finished with pickled red onion, cucumber and unagi sauce over sushi rice. There is also a Jerk Shrimp cup and a more traditional Four Alarm Tuna cup made with raw yellowfin, cucumber, cilantro and avocado.

sushi bowl with watermelon sashimi at lulu's local eatery // photo by carmen troesser

Boundary executive chef Rex Hale has been eating poke since he was a kid growing up with Japanese and Hawaiian neighbors. When he was developing Boundary’s raw bar, Hale decided to include a classic poke made with yellowfin tuna, soy, ginger, sesame and avocado served with taro root chips. It’s fresh, bright and unctuous without being heavy, offering a nice alternative to his spicier crudo and ceviche dishes.

One of the earliest adapters in St. Louis, Drunken Fish serves poke two ways: as a taco or a more traditional version featuring a rice-less bowl filled with cubes of tuna or yellowtail sashimi, soy sauce, sesame seeds, a wasabi-yuzu sauce, diced mango, cucumbers and onion. A side of wonton chips makes it perfect for scooping like a salsa.

“After we received several inquiries about it, we decided to add it to our menu,” said marketing director Myhi So. Poke has been on the restaurant’s bill of fare a while now, but continues to fly a bit under the radar. “I think a lot of people still don’t know about it,” So said. “But whenever they order it they end up really liking it.”

Purists may balk at calling any bowl of cut up stuff poke, but traditional or no, we’re diving into the light, fresh dish this spring – be it raw fish, watermelon, meat or veggies.

Get It

Boundary, 7036 Clayton Ave., St. Louis, 314.932.7818, boundary-stl.com

Crave Street Food, 2605 Washington Ave., St. Louis, 314.696.8480, wecravestl.com

Drunken Fish, multiple locations, drunkenfish.com

Lulu’s Local Eatery, 3201 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, 314.300.8215, luluslocaleatery.com

Pieces, 1535 S. Eighth St., St. Louis, 314.230.5184, stlpieces.com