While shaking my fist at Wicker Park’s lazily nostalgic Mahalo last week, I began wondering how the hell we got here. What’s behind the sudden surge in Hawaiian food? Particularly poke, the raw fish salad, piled on any variety of grains and greens, with toppings and garnishes to vary textures and sauces to brighten (or perhaps dampen) the qualities of the protein (typically tuna).
Back on the islands it turns out there’s a certain amount of eye-rolling resentment, if not simmering backlash, toward the appropriation of what is in contemporary times a supermarket staple but traditionally something one ate because it was easy to come by and you’d probably starve if you didn’t. Poke was originally just rock-salt-seasoned fish, usually ahi, tossed with seaweed and chopped kuikui nuts (aka candlenuts). As poke has swept the mainland, all sorts of things have been thrown into the mix in what the conspiratorial might whisper is an effort to disguise the insalubrious qualities of inferior fish, but is more generally in tune with our mass fast-casual efforts to put all our sadness in a bowl.
Another thing that grates on the nerves of the old school: the tendency to add a diacritical over the e to clue in the clueless on pronunciation. Poke (pronounced poh–kay) is a word meaning “to slice” or “cut.” Poké means nothing.
That didn’t stop the city’s two most conspicuous new poke pushers from employing the accent in their names: Aloha Poké in the Chicago French Market and Firefin Poké Shop from Shin Thompson and Rodelio “the Food Buddha” Aglibot. While that may make it easier for we corn-fed, marble-mouthed midwestern rubes to communicate, it does nothing to accommodate a quick and easy lunch. Both spots attract long lines during weekday prime-time lunch hours, which only attests to the popularity of this multifarious bowl.
It took about 30 minutes to get a volcano bowl at Aloha, where the line is broken in two, the second half pushed back a few dozen feet so as not to impede access to the poor, lonely Lillie’s Q outpost next door. Aloha features a four-step ordering process: (1) pick a size (eight, 16, or 24 ounces); (2) pick a base—white or brown rice or mixed greens; (3) pick a protein (marinated or plain ahi tuna, salmon, or tofu): (4) add on a bunch of ingredients (Maui onions, seaweed, pineapple, tobiko, ginger, et cetera) and sauces (wasabi, sesame vinaigrette, spicy aioli, among others). Or you can make it easy on yourself and order one of three house bowls. The volcano features seaweed, edamame, jalapeño, ginger, tobiko, and a revolting looking sauce that resembles Russian dressing and has a blanketing sweet-spicy creaminess that pretty much takes over everything in the bowl. In spite of myself, I actually enjoyed the large “Kahuna” with brown rice and marinated tuna. Aloha offers a generous portion of fish, which balances nicely with the other ingredients. The fish is of decent quality, which makes me question the abundance of sauce. (What are they trying to hide?) A more restrained approach in ordering on my part could’ve approximated the same elementally satisfying experience that’s offered by a decent bowl of chirashi or hwe du bap.
Aloha Poké Shop, Chicago French Market, 131 N. Clinton, 312-877-5336, alohapokeco.com
Firefin offers a similar build-your-own MO but with a more expansive and less traditional array of offerings, particularly with regard to the bases: purple rice, mixed greens, or gluten-free noodles. There’s a greater variety of proteins (including snow crab and chicken), four sauces, and nearly a dozen toppings and garnishes. Eleven house creations range from the minimal to the ridiculous, including a $16 “warrior style” bowl featuring ahi, albacore, salmon, snow crab, three sauces, rice, greens, noodles, and a bunch of other shit that pretty much amounts to the garbage salad of poke bowls. Dithering over the menu I ran in the opposite direction of that freak show and chose the classic Hawaiian, featuring both varieties of tuna, cucumber, onions, ginger, radish, scallions, and the house ono sauce (soy, sesame oil, ginger, garlic) over purple rice. While visually appealing, the rice is too sticky to easily achieve a proper homogenization in your bowl. And the tuna portioning at Firefin is a bit stingier for the price, as is the portioning in general ($13.95). But when you’re desperate for poke in the Loop, what are you gonna do?
Actually, there are plenty of places around the city serving poke right now—from Big & Little’s to Hugo’s Frog Bar—with more to come, including a spot from the seafood-feedbag pioneers behind the Angry Crab. All of which makes me wonder if this suddenly ubiquitous former grocery-store standby is approaching something close to Spam.
Firefin Poké Shop, 10 S. Lasalle, 312-754-0609, firefinpoke.com