Essential Dishes: Where to Eat the Best Poke in Houston
We continue our weekly series on the dishes that define Houston’s dining scene with a more recent addition to the city’s culinary landscape — poke. Though these Hawaiian bowls of raw tuna and salmon did not grace our city’s restaurant scene until around 2016, the popularity has spread like wildfire, leading to poke shops sprouting all over town and becoming one of Houstonians’ favorite forms of healthy fast food.
The Hawaiian raw fish salad we know today as poke traces its roots back centuries to the island’s original Polynesian natives, but it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that the dish acquired its current name and staple ingredients. Sometime around 2014, poke reached the mainland and almost instantly became part of the nation’s culinary zeitgeist. Starting on the west coast, it spread quickly to New York and from there to every metropolitan center in the country; evolving from a simple salad of diced tuna, soy sauce and sea salt to the complex bowl creations we know and love.
In Houston, a town lacking any recognizable Pacific Island influence, the dish was instead popularized by the city’s prominent Asian community. While traditional poke looks and tastes nothing like the “sushi bowl” versions that exist today, its culinary parallels to Asian (particularly Japanese) cuisine cannot be ignored. In fact, it was Houston’s local sushi chefs like Moku Bar’s Tuan Tran that first introduced the dish to a Houston audience while working in Japanese kitchens. Though some consider the dish’s mainland transformation a bastardization of Hawaiian cuisine, modern poke bowls represent the natural intersection of Pacific Island and Asian cultures.
Poke did not enter Houston’s food consciousness until late 2016, when Montrose’s Ono Poke became the first poke-centric brick and mortar restaurant in Houston. Following a successful slew of pop-ups, the Richmond Avenue restaurant, with its tiny dining room and grab-and-go counter, was the center of Houston’s poke culture for a brief moment in 2017. While the lunch line no longer wraps around the block, Ono is still considered one of the best poke shops in Houston. House specials like the spicy salmon with crushed Hot Cheetos and the spicy albacore with spicy shoyu, furikake and masago are still some of the best bowls in the city.
Another Houston poke institution, once housed in the back of a dingy Rice Village bar, now serves its signature, high-quality poke bowls out of a Heights brick and mortar. Pokeology started as a food stand inside the now-shuttered Doc Holliday’s bar in Rice Village. The popular shop sells simple takes on the classics — if you consider a bowl of rice, cucumbers, seaweed and tuna to be “classic” poke. The Houston original outlived its dying host of a cocktail bar in 2018 by raising nearly $200,000 on NextSeed to open a fixed location in the ultra-hip Sawyer Yards development. Owner and sushi chef Jason Liao creates some of the best poke in Houston simply by choosing high-grade hamachi and other sushi-quality cuts. While some restaurants opt for cheap, chewy tuna, attempting to mask the deficiencies with extra sauce and kitschy ingredients, Liao makes fish the focal point of his bowls, adding only a few complimentary ingredients to the mix.
Just as the city’s poke craze was entering full swing in 2017, Seaside Poke opened in EaDo, adding some definitive Houston flavor to the genre while raising the dish’s culinary profile. Seaside brought to Houston a new level of sophistication in both the preparation of poke bowls and the aesthetics of a poke shop. The well-lit and beautifully decorated restaurant boasts a dining room larger than most others of its kind. The menu features poke creations like the Kani Blake with spicy aioli and radishes, and the delightfully robust Truffle Yellowtail with truffle, puffed rice and ito togarashi. As if mouthwatering poke wasn’t enough, the East End shop also serves other Houston brands such as Kicking Kombucha tea and Screwston Cold Brew coffee.
From fine dining sushi establishments like Kata Robata to those opportunistic but always reliable out-of-town chains like Pokeworks and Poke Bar, the dish went from being virtual unknown to a bona fide mania in a matter of months. While the initial wave of poke fever has died down, what’s left is an undeniable relationship between Houston and poke. Despite the novelty, the part-Hawaiian, part-Japanese version of poke is here to stay — and we’re not complaining.