Like many food trends, poke, the latest culinary phenomenon to hit the Triangle, is rooted in cultural tradition. Pronounced POH-keh, Hawaii's versatile raw-fish "fast food" dish is typically made of ahi tuna or "tako" (octopus). But how rooted in authenticity is North Carolina's poke? And does it matter?
Scott Kleczkowski, who owns One Fish Two Fish in Carrboro with his wife, Lauren, doesn't seem to think so. The Kleczkowskis tried their first poke bowls "somewhere on the West Coast" and identified a gap in the market in their home of thirteen years.
"We're not Hawaiian. [Poke] is just a dish we love," Kleczkowski says. After what they say was "hours of researching Hawaiian flavor profiles" with chef Brian Kowalski, the Kleczkowskis opened One Fish Two Fish last April, adding to Goose Hospitality's collection of restaurants and bars.
"We've definitely put our own spin on it. Hawaiians come in and give mixed reviews," Kleczkowski says. "Some are pleasantly surprised by our take, while others [think], You know, it's not home." Later, he notes, "Great food is great food no matter what you do to it."
In a college town, the popularity of poke has garnered a lot of business for One Fish Two Fish, with a "line that stretches out the door every lunch and almost every evening," according to Kleczkowski, who hopes to open a second poke restaurant in the Cary or Morrisville area in the very near future.
If Kleczkowski has any doubts about the issues of authenticity his fare raises—or even an inkling of them—they're carried away with the current in conversation. Instead, he sort of whitesplains the whole thing. "The poke bowl is very much a mainland institution rather than an island institution," he says.
But to Kleczkowski's claim that poke is mainly a mainland tradition, Hawaii natives say balderdash. "It makes me feel good to see food from different cultures around the Triangle," says Durham resident Rona Esquejo-Leon, an ethnic Filipina born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. "I think it's great that [One Fish Two Fish] is bringing their own take to poke. Of course they fell in love with it—it's good food! But to say that it originated anywhere outside of Hawaii? Just, no."
The mark of good and proper poke is the quality of the fish. "It should be fresh, smooth, and buttery," says Candra Newsham, a former Hawaii resident. "But zoodles [zucchini spiralized into noodles]? That's some hipster bastardization right there."
But for some chefs, it isn't. For Los Angeles native Janet Lee, owner of ZenFish Poké Bar on Ninth Street in Durham, the dish's versatile ingredients beg for creativity. ZenFish's menu includes both raw and cooked items, vegan and gluten-free options, sweet potatoes, sweet potato greens, and kale, classic Hawaiian flavor combinations and sauces, white rice, quinoa—and, yes, zoodles.
Lee cultivates a conscientious reverence for her newfound home and fellow business owners while still tossing as much island flavor as she can into the mix. All ZenFish's vegetables come from either Mama Springs Farms or Funny Girl Farm in Durham, or farms that work with Eastern Carolina Organics.
"Our menu changes with what's in season with the local farmers," she says. "And since poke is so adaptable, it's exciting to think of different ways to incorporate what's in season into our bowls."
Not two miles away from ZenFish is Ph & Poké House, another "poke your way" restaurant that allows diners to build their own poke bowls, by telling a server behind a glass pane which proteins, mixes, and toppings should be slopped into a mixing bowl, tossed with one of several Asian-inspired sauces, and poured over a base of either rice or greens.
While zoodles can't be found at Ph & Poké House, Vietnamese dumplings, bánh mì, and an impressive selection of hard-to-find Vietnamese soups can. Thai Nguyen, the twenty-year restaurateur and owner of Ph & Poké House, knows raw fish. He and his family own eleven sushi restaurants in the Triangle, including Sake Bomb, Sushi Love, and Shiki Sushi, as well as others in Topsail Beach and Wilmington.
After seeing poke's popularity grow in Los Angeles and New York, Nguyen thought, This is exactly like sashimi. Why don't I try this? (For the record, Nguyen's poke takes second billing for the best bún bò Hu I've had outside of Hu, Vietnam.)
Sometimes innovation looks like appropriation, or falls hard after attempting fusion. With new places like One Fish Two Fish, ZenFish Poké Bar, and Ph & Poké House—all three less than six months old—it's clear that some Triangle restaurateurs gracefully achieve that nuanced balance between tradition and modernity, cultural consciousness and local sourcing, better than others.
Places like One Fish Two Fish want to serve inspiration; nostalgia is not on the menu. Ph & Poké House's soup game is strong, but its fusion falls flat. ZenFish, with quinoa and zoodles, sweet potatoes and kombucha, hits closest to the mark in both flavor and attitude.
"Having diversity and a range of options is what adds richness to a community," Lee says. "We want to keep some of the Hawaiian authenticity while adding our own Durham and Los Angeles flair to it. There's a limitless amount of learning, growing, and evolving here."
Esquejo-Leon, the Hawaii native, tries ZenFish's house tuna, Lee's tribute to traditional Hawaiian shoyu poke. After the first bite her eyes widen.
"This!" she exclaims. "It isn't exactly like home. But this ... this is good."
This story originally appeared in print with the headline Hokey Poke.
Corrections: This story originally misidentified Candra Newsham as Carrie Newsham. Additionally, the ethnic background of Rona Esquejo-Leon has been clarified.