Hawaiian Poke Goes From Food Trend to All-Out Seafood Invasion

Ohana's spicy tuna poke on kale.EXPAND
Ohana's spicy tuna poke on kale.
Laura Shunk
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Back in February, we mused over Denver's sudden infatuation with Hawaiian poke, the glistening dish of diced fish and Pacific Rim flavors that was once the territory of sushi bars looking to use up less attractive cuts of tuna and salmon. But in just the past two months or so, even more eateries dedicated to poke have opened or announced their intentions to bring more marinated fish to town.

Let's start with three that have yet to open, two of them within a salmon's leap of each other. Denver Poke Company is coming soon to 1550 Platte Street, on the ground floor of the Commons Park West apartment complex, while just up the street, Poke House will poke its head up in new building at 2420 17th Street (that's just around the corner from Denver Beer Co., for those of you who navigate based on craft =-brewery destinations). Meanwhile, Aloha Poké Co., which bills itself as "Chicago's poké pioneer" (not to be confused with Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago), will surface at Zeppelin Station, a new multi-use development at 3501 Wazee Street near the new RiNo light-rail stop. Zeppelin Station's ground floor will house a massive food hall, and Aloha is the first vendor to announce its intention to open there.

So about that accent mark over the "e" in poke; why is it sometimes there and sometimes not? In Hawaii, the accent isn't needed (and would probably be scoffed at), because the dish (and the Hawaiian language) has been around long enough that people just know to pronounce it "POH-kay," with the accent on the first syllable. But here in the tuna-less Mountain West (or in the even more Midwestern Chicago), restaurateurs are afraid people might just say "poke," as in the verb that means to jab or prod. So the accent gets added to the e in order to jab or prod you into saying "pokay," although many folks just say "pokee" — a pronunciation that another newcomer, Turtle Boat at 2231 South Broadway, humorously acknowledges in its tagline, "Colorado poki salads." (To Aloha's credit, the company's official logo actually reads Aloha Poke Co. with a bar, not an accent over the e, but that's not always easy to reproduce in online formats and press releases.)

Turtle Boat combines traditional Hawaiian flavors with Colorado ingredients.EXPAND
Turtle Boat combines traditional Hawaiian flavors with Colorado ingredients.
Mark Antonation

Add to those the upcoming QuickFish Poke Bar that will open inside Avanti Food & Beverage in place of Bamboo Sushi this July, and Sushi Cup, which just opened in the Governor's Park neighborhood last month, and you've got more than just a trend — you've got a full-blown invasion. But why is it happening now? Quite probably because Hawaiian cuisine in general has been gaining popularity on the mainland, especially in California, but also because building out a poke-only kitchen is relatively cheap. Chefs don't necessarily need a full kitchen — just cold storage, a prep table and a rice steamer. With a fast-casual setup offering several different sauces, toppings and bases, poke joints offer nearly limitless combinations to keep customers from getting bored. And since poke is great on the go, dining areas can be small, so a big investment in square footage isn't required.

That's all good news for Denver diners, because an avalanche of poke means plenty of competition, keeping fish choppers at the top of their games. Some specialty shops will inevitably be winnowed out as poke fans find their favorites, so for now, enjoy the bounty. Here are a few more to check out:

Komotodo Sushi Burrito, 1512 Larimer Street
Motmaki, 14650 West Colfax Avenue, Lakewood and 1600 28th Street, Boulder
Ohana Island Kitchen, 2563 15th Street
PokeCity, 8101 East Belleview Avenue
S'Ono Grinds, 900 Auraria Parkway

The Red and Orange bowl with purple rice at Sushi Cup.EXPAND
The Red and Orange bowl with purple rice at Sushi Cup.
Lauren Monitz

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