Image via LemonShark Poke
Written by Frank Lopez
The Central Valley is positively hooked on poke.
Pronounced “poh-kay,” the hybrid Japanese-Hawaiian dish features chunks of raw marinated fish — usually tuna — tossed with rice and topped with veggies and umami-based sauces for a completely customizable meal.
Nationally, the number of poke restaurants doubled from 2014 to 2016, according to the search and discovery app Foursquare. There was a 643-percent increase in poke orders across the U.S. in 2017 according to GrubHub, an online food ordering company.
Several restaurants have sprung up across the Central Valley — most are locally owned, but some out-of-area franchises are appearing on the scene.
“I think people want something that is not the norm,” said Rema Koligian, co-owner of Butterfish California Poke, a local poke chain. “We’ve grown so accustomed to fast food, or fine dining, and this fills the void with something that’s fresh and fast, and just gives them a new option.”
The first Butterfish opened at the end of 2016 in the Park Crossing Shopping Center off Highway 41 and Friant Road. After the community embraced the brand, a second Butterfish opened in Clovis near Herndon and Fowler avenues at the beginning of 2018. Another Fresno location opened last month at Herndon and Palm avenues.
Koligian believes that eventually more diverse and healthy eating options will become more of a norm than an exception for the area.
Not your Makuahine’s (mom’s) poke
While there may be plenty of options for poke in North Fresno and Clovis, the owners of Poki Bowl Express on Kings Canyon and Fowler avenues wanted to bring the dish to the Sunnyside area.
“I had tried some other similar restaurants, and I really liked the food, and there wasn’t one close to this area, said Kyle Wilkins, owner and president of Poki Bowl Express. “The Sunnyside area is starting to grow quite a bit. There’s a lot of new housing. We just went for it and it’s been a good ride so far.”
Poki Bowl Express hit its one-year anniversary mark in July, and Brian Sanchez, chef and partner at the restaurant, said that in the beginning, word of mouth helped bring in customers, along with the nearby GB3 gym.
Sanchez said that poke today is trending how sushi was trending in the ‘80s and ‘90s — a new foreign dish that has variety and is healthy.
Though poke restaurants on the mainland come with fresh raw fish and a variety of toppings, known as California poke, traditional poke looks less colorful. Traditional Hawaiian poke uses already-marinated fish and is served with Maui onions, limu (algae), soy sauce, green onions and sesame oil, and is premade in more of a deli type setting.
“We consider this California style because of the fish itself. In Hawaii they marinate their fish and preseason it,” said Sanchez. “Here we cut it raw, and you choose, based on your preference, your own sauce. We have spicy sauces, sweet sauces, savory sauces, so based on your personal preference, that’s what we toss and coat it in.”
The more modern “California” poke tends to have a rice base and includes more raw vegetables such as cucumber, kale, cilantro, edamame, corn, mango and avocado.
Sanchez said that since there is minimal cooking involved in poke, costs are lowered and clean up is easy.
Though many of the poke restaurants in the Valley are concentrated in Fresno, Visalia will soon have its own option for the raw fish dish.
LemonShark Poke is a poke restaurant franchise that opened in 2016, and has more than 80 locations across the U.S., with the first in San Bernardino.
Tobi Miller, president and co-founder of LemonShark Poke, said that poke is trending because of the popularity of sushi, with poke being what Miller calls “deconstructed sushi.” The speed in which one gets their meal, the affordability and the low barrier of entry to open up a restaurant makes it attractive to entrepreneurs.
The franchise is named after the lemon shark, which is a picky eater that has a preference for large, healthy and matured fish. Inspired by this ocean predator, Miller said their guiding principle is to use line-caught fish that is triple inspected at the boat, dock and processing facility.
The Visalia location is expected to open by the end of August. Miller said a lot of attention is paid to the look and feel of LemonShark restaurants, which feature a tropical modern decor, trying to avoid the “Hawaiian postcard” style, he said.
“We are bringing the experience of eating at a nice place to the poke category,” he said. “We have a self-serve beer wall and craft sake and all custom millwork.”
The Visalia location will be 2,500 square feet, making it one of LemonShark’s largest restaurants.
“We have a lovely franchise group in Visalia, and I know they’re passionate about the brand and the food we are serving,” Miller said. “I hope that the community appreciates the food that we are bringing and the experience.”