The hottest dish right now in Sacramento requires no heat. So put away the pressure cooker, give the grill a break and prepare to savor a food that’s cool in both its popularity and temperature.
In terms of culinary trends, 2015 will be remembered in Sacramento as the Year of Poke. Variations of this Hawaiian seafood salad have long been a staple of local menus, be it as a starter course at Bandera or nestled in the fish counter at Oto’s Marketplace. But now, the raw seafood dish known as poke (pronounced “po-kay”) is primed to become the new shawarma, shabu shabu or other dish du jour.
The poke craze in Sacramento was kicked off by Fish Face, the poke bar run by Billy Ngo of Kru at R Street’s WAL Public Market. Since opening in early July, Fish Face has processed up to 120 pounds of fresh tuna daily – sometimes selling out of product – to meet its customer demand.
“In Sacramento it’s all the hype,” said Ngo. “It’s healthy, and this is a good hot-weather food for this city. And it’s just good.”
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And plenty more poke is on the way. Hokee Poke is expected to open by early September, on a stretch of Elk Grove Boulevard near Highway 99. The Elk Grove location of Wrap N’ Roll Sushi Burrito, known for its super-stuffed hand rolls, will transition to a new concept as Make Fish Poke & Sushi Burrito. Meanwhile, the recently opened Iron Horse Tavern on 15th Street includes sweet and spicy tuna poke nachos among its offerings of small plates.
While considered a regional staple of Hawaii, poke has proved to carry plenty of mass appeal. In 2014, Da Poke Shack of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, topped the list of Yelp’s “Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S.” Known for its especially fresh poke in a hole-in-the-wall atmosphere, Da Poke Shack garnered so many positive reviews that it bested such Michelin-starred temples of gastronomy as Alinea in Chicago and New York City’s Eleven Madison Park.
Poke’s history in Hawaii dates back to its earliest peoples. The name “poke” translates roughly in Hawiian as “to slice,” and a recipe that used this abundance of cubed fish with such local ingredients as kukui nuts, Hawaiian salt and seaweed soon became a staple of the islands. Over the generations, and through the influence of various settlers, poke recipes have encompassed an array of ingredients. Modern poke recipes might even include vegetarian versions with tofu or a carnivorous approach that substitutes seared flank steak for the seafood.
No matter what style, a serving of fresh poke should hit the taste buds like a relaxing Hawaiian breeze.
There shouldn’t be much fuss when assembling poke or overcomplicating the recipe. The traditional dish can be broken down into a few key ingredients: fish, soy sauce, sesame oil and onion. The goal is to complement the freshness of the seafood (or other protein) with accents of salty and sweet, not drown the fish with marinade.
The simplicity of poke makes it a good fit for a simple dish to make at home, or the basis of a fast-casual restaurant concept. But these simple building blocks can easily be expanded into a whole house of flavor profiles, be it spicy or tangy with a touch of citrus. Here are some principles of poke to create your own version of Fish Face at home:
Pick a seafood for your poke
Raw ahi tuna is the classic ingredient for poke, but pretty much any seafood will work. Salmon, scallops and even sturgeon are fair game for this fish salad. Octopus has emerged as a favorite poke choice at Fish Face for its tender and plump character. Different fishes can also be used in a single recipe, such as combining octopus and tuna.
No matter which fish strikes your fancy, the key is to buy fresh, not frozen. Recommended fishmongers in the Sacramento area include:
- Sunh Fish (1900 V St., Sacramento; 916-442-8237)
- Oto’s Marketplace (4990 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento; 916-424-2398)
- Fins Market & Grill (2610 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; 916-488-5200)
Slice your seafood into small chunks
The foundation of poke generally starts with a fish steak that’s been skinned and deboned. After all, you don’t want your poke to poke you in the cheek.
Cube the fish into 1/2-inch or 1-inch pieces. The cubes should be big enough that they can easily be picked up via a toothpick or chopsticks.
Manage your marinade
Let’s not go overboard with that marinade. The goal is highlight the essence of the sea, not soak the fish in soy sauce and sesame oil to oblivion. Extended marinade times for raw seafood can result in a slimy texture. Ngo prefers not to pre-marinade his fish before assembling poke, but for a more extended approach, he says to keep the marinade time under six hours.
Ngo recommends a 4:1 ratio of fish to soy sauce, with an additional tablespoon of sesame oil. Keep in mind that this ratio can easily be tweaked to taste, perhaps using less oil, and some may prefer a pinch of sea salt. For Ngo, a single serving of poke is built on:
- 4 ounces of fish (cubed)
- 1 ounce soy sauce (or other sauce)
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
Complete your poke
Now it’s time to garnish that fish with ingredients to your liking, including accents of spicy and/or sweet. Also consider ingredients that add a bit of crunch. Poke purists would opt for inamona (chopped kukui nuts), but this ingredient can be difficult to find at retail in the mainland United States.
Here are some additional ingredients to consider for your poke. For a single serving, add a couple pinches each and adjust to taste:
- Chopped onion (green, white, yellow or Maui)
- Jalapeño, sliced
- Avocado, sliced
- Tomato, chopped
- Macadamia nuts, finely chopped
- Sesame seeds
- Crushed almonds
- Crunchy garlic
- Chili flakes
- Ginger, grated
Combine the fish, marinade ingredients and add-ons all in a large mixing bowl. Serve right away or let refrigerate for a few hours.
“It’s like a yogurt shop,” said Ngo about the poke process. “You pick what you want to do. Take a bag of Doritos or Flaming Hot Cheetos and and crumble them up and pour on top. It’s up to you. As long as you get the basics right, you can do whatever you want.”