It's hard to deny that some trends take a bit longer to infiltrate New Orleans, including many of the healthy eating fads taking the West and East coasts by storm. New Orleanians are proud of indulgences and for very good reason, but every now and then a trend comes along so pervasive — and so persuasive — it's hard to pass up.
Enter poke, the cubed fish dish that's popping up all over the country by way of Hawaii. (Bon Appetit featured it on the cover of its February issue.) While poke has made a few appearances on New Orleans' menus (CellarDoor and Cavan both offer takes on it), Poke Loa on Magazine Street is the first restaurant to focus on the raw fish dish.
Found at grocery stores and surf shacks all over Hawaii, the dish traditionally featured reef fish marinated in soy and sesame oil mixed with seaweed and kukui nuts. Since making it to the mainland, the dish has been interpreted by chefs across the country, incorporating different fish and toppings in both upscale and casual settings.
Poke Loa is a casual spot with a Chipotle-style assembly line model, with an array of bases, proteins, "mix-ins," marinades and toppings.
For the protein choices, tuna, yellowtail and salmon all fare well, but the octopus is chewy and fishy. I also liked the tofu, which tasted like it was marinated in tamari and sesame oil and had a nice texture with a slightly salty, umami flavor. The spicy tuna is what you'd find wrapped in a sushi roll: a fine mix fiery with chili paste and green onions.
As a base, there's a choice of white or brown rice or mixed greens. The brown rice is my favorite, carrying a nutty and sweet flavor that gave each of the bowls a more substantial feel than the other options.
Though the restaurant's concept is a choose-your-own model, there also are a few signature bowls on the menu. The salmon bowl is topped with chunks of the fatty fish, avocado, strips of silky seaweed and a mayonnaise-heavy imitation crab salad. Bright green edamame and cucumber slices add crunch while sweet, pickled onion strips intermingle with chili paste and sesame oil for an addictively slick and spicy emulsion. The lemon aioli binding the mix adds a creamy touch.
I wasn't excited by the wasabi tobiko topping the bowl, which tasted nothing of wasabi — or really of anything at all. I yearned for some salty Cajun bowfin caviar instead, which would have added a welcome touch of brine and funk.
The vegetable bowl is full of color, texture and flavor. Brown rice and thick hunks of tofu get soaked in tamari, chili paste and sesame oil and are topped with seaweed, onions, edamame, cucumber and thick avocado slices. Bright pink slivers of pickled ginger add color and kick, and mango chunks add a sweet, juicy element. Wasabi aioli provides a spicy nudge.
A regular size bowl includes two scoops of protein ($11.50) and is enough to sate a hungry person's appetite. The large bowl ($13.50) includes three scoops, and the restaurant's King Loa bowl ($15.50) features a whopping four scoops of protein and a grocery list of toppings. The massive bowl is a nice way to sample a lot of what the menu has to offer, but it also feels like overkill. The various flavors and textures can get muddled and lost in the mix.
Poke Loa quickly blossomed into popularity, especially with lunchtime patrons, and it doesn't feel too early to say: Poke is here to stay.