Dining review: Poké bowls abound. See what the fuss is about.

The Gochujang Pork bowl will take you on a journey across the Pacific to Korea at One Fish Two Fish in Carrboro.

One Fish Two Fish in Carrboro and ZenFish in Durham offer their takes on poké, the popular Hawaiian trend.

By Greg Cox

Originally published 7/20/2017

Remember when people used to joke about sushi, calling it bait? Because, you know, raw fish isn’t fit for human consumption?

Well, who’s laughing now? In just the past couple of decades, sushi has swum out of the Backwater of Exotica and all the way into the American Dietary Mainstream. Surfing in the powerful wake of sushi’s popularity, raw fish specialties from all over the world – from Italy’s crudo to the ceviches of Mexico and Peru – are finding a tsunami of new fans all over the country.

The latest trend to make a splash is Hawaiian poké (pronounced POH-kay). The concept, traditionally a simple salad of diced raw fish (typically tuna) tossed in soy sauce and sesame oil, has expanded in the hands of inventive chefs to embrace everything from tofu to pork. The list of supplemental ingredients has grown, too, from a handful of classics – seaweed, fish roe and the like – to mix-and-match selections of grain bases, sauces and toppings that can run into the dozens.

Locally, you can see what the fuss is all about at either of these two new counter-service poké joints. Both offer a selection of house specialty combinations, as well as a mix-and-match option for creating your own combo.

One Fish Two Fish

370 E. Main St., Suite 140, Carrboro

919-240-5532

onefishtwofishpoke.com

 

If the name doesn’t make you smile, one look at the whimsical decor – dashboard hula dancers, ukuleles, surfboards, a sign behind the counter proclaiming Nemo as employee of the month – ought to do the trick.

The Island Classic is made up of ahi tuna tossed to order in a traditional shoyu dressing.

The Hawaiian motif sets the tone for a menu with house specialty combos such as the Island Classic (tuna tossed to order in a traditional shoyu dressing), Mulawai Bowl (salmon) and Huli Huli Chicken, which serves up bite-size morsels of pineapple-braised thigh, macadamia nuts, cucumber, radish and mango on a bed of coconut sticky rice. There’s a Vegetarian Bowl, too, starring miso sweet-and-sour eggplant.

The Gochujang Pork bowl will take you on a journey across the Pacific to Korea, and if you’re a Scoville seeker, the Spicy Kahiki Tuna bowl will punch your ticket.

One Fish Two Fish’s Spicy Kahiki Tuna bowl is made up of ahi tuna, spicy khaki sauce, oranges, cucumber, red and green onion, togarashi pineapple, radish, tuxedo sesame seeds and furikake on coconut sticky rice.

If you’re a creative sort, on the other hand, you’ll want to take another route entirely: Build your own poke bowl. Start with a base (six options, from rice to zucchini noodles), then add a protein, sauce, and your choice from a tempting assortment of nearly two dozen fruit, vegetable and nut toppings.

How about shrimp in a lemon curry aioli, topped with avocado, watermelon radish and cashews on a base of zucchini noodles? Or maybe spice things up a bit with, say, ahi tuna in a Sriracha aioli, topped with Sweetie Drop peppers, daikon, pickled carrots and cilantro on a quinoa base. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

One Fish Two Fish’s distinctive extra-crunchy take on veggie tempura, served with fried lotus chips and a couple of sauces for dipping is a great shareable menu item.

Tuna nachos (ahi tuna, Togarashi pineapple, cucumber, jalapeño and cilantro on a bed of wonton chips, topped with Sriracha and wasabi aioli) is a shareable twist on the poké theme. Also fun for two or more to share is the kitchen’s distinctive extra-crunchy take on veggie tempura, served with fried lotus chips and a couple of sauces for dipping.

For dessert, treat yourself to Hawaiian shaved ice, made with your choice of sugary house-made fruit syrup like blueberry at One Fish Two Fish in Carrboro.

For dessert, treat yourself to Hawaiian shaved ice, made with your choice of sugary house-made fruit syrup (pineapple, strawberry, lemon, mango or blueberry) and served in a cheery sky-blue plastic cup with a daisy-petal rim. If that doesn’t put an ear-to-ear grin on your face, better check your pulse.

ZenFish

810 Ninth St., Durham

919-937-9966

zenfishpokebar.com

Tucked into a space a few steps below street level in the new Solis apartment building on Ninth Street, ZenFish is a compact eatery with just a handful of tables inside and a few more on the “garden level” patio. But you know what they say about powerful things coming in small packages.

Behind the counter, a couple of industrial-size rice cookers and rows of stainless steel bins brimming with a veritable rainbow assortment of fresh veggies, squeeze bottles of sauces and other ingredients hint at the plethora of possibilities. You can mix and match your way to poké bliss with your choice of three bases (or no base at all, creating a poké salad); 11 proteins (the usual suspects, plus outliers such as crawfish and sweet potato); half a dozen sauces; and 21 toppings, including wasabi peas, wonton crisps, roasted seaweed and the like for a little extra crunch.

Theoretically, I suppose you could go all in on the Buddhist vibe of the place when you order and say “make me one with everything.” But I wouldn’t advise it.

In fact, with such a bewildering array of choices, it’s tempting to simplify your life by opting for one of the Signature bowls. At least the first couple of times you visit, that’s a wise decision.

Opt for the Grateful Bowl made up of house tuna (tossed in a traditional soy-sesame sauce) topped with onions, masago, roasted seaweed, avocado and sesame seeds, served over the base of your choice at ZenFish in Durham.

You might start simple with the Grateful bowl: house tuna (tossed in a traditional soy-sesame sauce) topped with onions, masago, roasted seaweed, avocado and sesame seeds, served over the base of your choice. Next time, depending on your mood, you could meditate on the medley of sweet and delicate flavors in the Compassion bowl (featuring shrimp and scallops in a truffle ponzu), or take a walk on the wild side with the Courageous bowl (house tuna and spicy tuna, further amped up with a Sriracha aioli drizzle).

The Veggie Bowl at ZenFish is made up of sweet potato, tofu, onions, avocado, quinoa, micro greens, edamame, organic salad, turmeric and tossed in a miso ginger sauce.

As your confidence grows, you’ll want to customize your bowl to your own taste. Maybe even turn your bowl into a rice- and seaweed-wrapped poké burrito. At that point, you’ll be a true disciple of the ZenFish philosophy: There are many paths to enlightenment.

Bonus Catch

If you’d like to try poké but don’t want to drive to Durham or Carrboro, check out these recently reviewed Raleigh restaurants. Find the reviews at themenunc.com, our searchable archive of reviews.

City Market Sushi: 315 Blake St., Raleigh. 919-322-1987. citymarketsushi.net

Raleigh Raw: 7 W. Hargett St., Raleigh. 919-400-0944. raleighraw.com

ggcox55@gmail.com or themenunc.com