If you are a serious raw fish lover, you might have been lucky enough to get a taste of the poke pop ups that have been making the rounds these past few months before getting their brick-and-mortar locations set and ready to go. If you haven’t caught the poke fever that has been hitting Houston, where have you been?
Poke (/poʊˈkeɪ/) is a raw Hawaiian fish salad can be served as an appetizer or an entrée. The neame means "section" or "to slice or cut." Though the dish originally consisted of oily tuna and octopus, ahi poke (a.k.a. yellow fin tuna), has become increasingly popular, along with variations featuring raw salmon or various shellfish. With a rich tradition steeped in the Hawaiian fishing culture, poke began as seasoned cut-offs from the daily catch served as snacks. The version with which we are most familiar today (very similar to the Japanese dish tekka don, known to Americans simply as a tuna bowl) gained popularity around the 1970s.
First on our list was Little Liberty, what I like to call "the Gateway Poke." It's for the newbie who says, "Hey, I can't commit to a whole restaurant based on poke, but I want to give this whole poke thing a shot." All the Liberty restaurants have a section of the menu dedicated to poke. It might not be what they are typically known for (that would be their mac 'n' cheese and oyster selections), but it's a great way to get your palate a little wet before going all-in. This is not a traditional poke. Instead, diners build their bowls from a choice of proteins (including vegetarian and beef options), sauce and base, from rice to cucumbers. While I thoroughly enjoyed the dish from a raw fish perspective, it didn't quite cut it for my dining partner who was still seriously jonesing for a serious poke fix.
Ready to jump in the deep end, we hopped on over to Pokéology in Rice Village. They’ve been doing some heavy pop-up rotation over the past few months and just recently had their official soft opening. Located inside Doc Holliday's (formerly occupied by Seaside Poké), Pokéology offers its patrons a dual dining/bar experience—sometime after 10 p.m., both a DJ and a smoke machine were in full effect.
Pokeology's five-step menu offers three choices of base: white rice, spring mix or no base. Chef Jason Liao, who earned some serious chef stripes at Aka Sushi House, and his partner Charlie "Chizzang" Chang, a veteran of the Marine Corps who fell in love with poke during his travels, take poke very seriously. While you can build your own (just like at Little Liberty), my friend and I went for two of their pre-made bowls. I had the Applemachi (yes, it is made with green apples and it’s delicious) and my friend had the Salmon Thaiviche. The portions came in multiple sizes, we both had the white rice base, I had the kimchi mayo sauce, he went with the Sweet Dragon.
And thanks to Pokeology being half a bar, we got to pair our bowls with some Doc Holliday's signature cocktails: a Sazerac and a Mule. The fish quality was really fresh and both selections had a zesty combination of ingredients. As Jason and Charlie are enthusiastically passionate about both the service and the food, they also sent over some special sauces for us to sample and some scallops that were out of this world. While we had planned to stop by for just a quick bite, after sampling some of Doc Holliday's Sunday brunch mimosas and sangria we ended leaving just before close. Pokéology is most definitely worth a trip: Come in for the poke and you might just grab a stool for the night.
Next up on our list is the newly opened Ono Poke on Richmond. Partners Jim Nguyen, Patrick Lam and Frederic Iam recently christened their joint venture. My friend and I went for breakfast. At Ono, we decided to build our own bowls. Choosing from the four-step process, I went with the white rice base; yellowtail; sweet, citrusy Ono sauce; and added toppings of masago and sesame seeds. My pal went with brown rice and the K sauce (described on the menu as "sweet, hot and tangy without the napalm blast"), and we paired each with cold brew Katz’s coffee and grabbed a table outside on the patio.
While you might not normally choose raw fish for breakfast or brunch, trust us on this: It's healthy, fresh and really good. The portions at Ono were on the larger side, so one is all you need. Partner Patrick Lam (you might recognize the family name from Lambo, a staple in the Galleria area) was on site and came over to chat with us about all things poke, and brought us some additional sauces to sample and one of the pre-made house bowls with crushed hot Cheetos on top. Lam is serious about making poke part of the permanent food scene here in Houston. We ate everything down to the last Cheeto and polished off our coffee in record time. While Ono does not currently have a liquor license, booze (and perhaps sake) is in the works, so stay tuned and check them out.
While we filled up on raw fish over a whole weekend, we only scratched the surface of the growing scene. There's more poke still to come, and so much more seafood and rice to consume.