If you combined the Chipotle Mexican Grill concept with sushi and ceviche, what would you get? Something like the Poke House in Fort Lauderdale, a fast-casual restaurant that opened in October. It specializes in poke, marinated raw tuna, a Hawaiian delicacy. Poke is pronounced “po-kay,” and at the Poke House these fish bowls are more than okay. They are light, refreshing and satisfying, and a perfect fit for South Florida’s warm weather and health-conscious lifestyle.
Besides the vibrant cubes of ruby-red tuna, flown in daily from Panama and Costa Rica, there is salmon, hamachi, sauteed shrimp and tofu. The bowls can be customized with a variety of vegetable and rice options.
There are also a half-dozen signature bowls, with fixed ingredients formulated into tasty meals, including the Sunset Beach Hawaii, a traditional tuna concoction; and the Cocoa Beach Florida, hamachi with quinoa, orange, salsa fresca and crushed plantain chips. There are salads and other fish-based dishes, including mini tacos, steamed buns with tuna, and salmon or tuna “nachos” with wonton chips and cream cheese.
The bowls and dishes are priced in the $9 to $16 range, and those who want healthier lunch and dinner options than burgers and fries or pizza should devour it hook, line and sinker. I know I did. Apparently many others do, too.
“We’ve got people who drive here all the way from Homestead,” a worker told us when she came to check on our meals. “The lunch lines can get long.”
Co-owner Memphis Garrett told me in a follow-up interview that the restaurant has been going through 100 pounds of tuna a day, and the restaurant exceeded its sales targets within 30 days of opening. Expansion plans for Boca Raton, West Palm Beach and Miami Beach are in the works. Chef Jeremy Powell, a high-end sushi veteran who worked for the international Katsuya chain at SLS Hotels, oversees the fish preparation. Garrett says the tuna is delivered fresh with the skin on and bloodline in, sliced and cubed in-house for maximum freshness. Salmon is from Scotland. Hamachi is frozen from Japan. Standard bowls ($11.95) come with three ounces of protein, large ($14.95) with five ounces. Base options include three types of rice (white, green or black), quinoa or baby kale.
I arrived just past noon on a sleepy weekend, early enough to avoid the crowds. The Poke House is located in the Victoria Park Shoppes, a plaza on North Federal Highway with established restaurants Shuck N Dive and Christina Wan’s Mandarin House. Upon entering the Poke House, customers see a glass-encased counter where workers assemble fresh ingredients to order. Diners place orders and get drinks at the register, paying first. Kona beer from Hawaii ($6) is available, along with small and large bottles of sake and wine ($12 to $35). And there are some interesting nonalcoholic options, including organic cold-pressed juices ($9), coconut water ($6) and Mexican Coke ($3), made with real sugar instead of corn syrup.
You carry a large number to place on your table, and soon enough servers deliver food in eco-friendly compostable bowls. The oak tables are handsome and sleek, with small cactus planters on each. A coffee table in the back has surfing books and a planter fashioned from an empty Spam can. One wall is covered with AstroTurf and has a surfboard mounted on it. Another has wallpaper with parrots. Another has paintings of Hawaii. There are high ceilings, and music is piped through speakers (the Black Keys and Led Zeppelin were on the playlist during my visit). A collection of broken surfboards sits on a ledge. The vibe is relaxed and friendly. Plastic utensils, chopsticks, soy sauce, Sriracha and napkins are on counters in front and back. It would be more practical if the napkin dispensers and condiments were on every table. Garrett says he prefers the aesthetic of clutter-free tables.
The challenge with poke, Garrett says, is that it’s a relative newcomer to South Florida and some people are averse to raw fish. “It’s in the default zone,” Garrett says. “If you have a group of four people and one of them doesn’t eat raw fish, they’re going to go somewhere else.” The Poke House has expanded its menu to offer cooked shrimp and a smoked salmon salad, and Garrett says more tweaks and additions are on the way. Unless one is pregnant or has a compromised immune system, I say be adventurous and give poke a shot. Marinated in soy and sesame oil, the fish is simple and tasty.
I liked the tuna, avocado and serrano chili peppers in the signature Sunset Beach Hawaii bowl ($11.95), but found the radishes dull and the pickled ginger a little overwhelming when paired with the fish. Better to keep the ginger on the side and use it as a palate cleanser. A build-your-own bowl ($11.95) with hamachi, garlic yuzu, serrano chili, cucumbers, scallions and kimchi sauce over baby kale was crunchy and spicy. The Punta Hermosa Peru bowl ($11.95) had hamachi with green rice, red onion and crispy sweet potato in an aji Amarillo emulsion, a nice blend that was flavorful with mellow heat. The green rice gets its color from being simmered with salsa verde — fresh herbs and tomatillo.
North Shore steamed buns ($10.25 for three), with tuna in spicy passionfruit ginger sauce, kimchi and avocado puree, are for those who like soft and doughy things. The Mavericks mini tacos with tuna and avocado mousse ($9.25 for three) and Pipeline Nachos with salmon or tuna, cream cheese and chipotle mayo ($11.25) are for those who like crunchy things. The seaweed salad ($4), vermicellilike strands tossed with soy, sake, mirin rice wine, radish and white sesame seeds, was vibrant.
My only complaint was with the blue crab salad ($6). The menu says it is made with blue crab and Japanese kewpie mayonnaise, so I was disappointed to find a shredded mix that included surimi, or imitation crab. Garrett says the salad, with a bright-red topping of tiny salmon roe, uses 50 percent real crab. Next time, I’ll skip it. But when summer comes and South Florida gets steamy, there will be plenty of next times for me at the Poke House.
THE POKE HOUSE
666 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale
Cuisine: Hawaiian, marinated raw fish bowls and salads
Cost: Inexpensive-moderate. Bowls, salads and specials cost $9 to $15. Sides cost $3 to $6.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Kona beer $6, wine and sake $12 to $30
Sound level: Mellow, music over speakers
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Free lot