West coasters are having a lucky week – two poke restaurants just opened their doors in the District, giving them a taste of a trend that started close to home.
Poke, a Hawaiian dish that features raw fish mixed with sauce atop rice and other toppings, has been a trendy health food dominating the West Coast for years. The two poke restaurants that opened this week are both located in the Northwest quadrant and are the first shops to exclusively offer poke bowls.
Poke Papa, located at 806 H St. NW, opened last week to offer traditional poke with an Asian-fusion twist by offering both raw and cooked toppings. Abunai Poke moved from a food truck to a brick-and-mortar spot at 1920 L St. NW Wednesday and serves up more traditional poke bowls.
Both spots are fast casual and offer signature bowls or build-your-own options, allowing customers to customize their poke bowl with rice or greens, protein, sauces and fresh toppings.
The owner of Abunai is an Oahu native who has been serving up poke out of his food truck for about two years and opened the doors to the restaurant’s first storefront Wednesday. On opening day, a line of loyal fans and newcomers snaked through the small L Street space and spilled over to the sidewalk.
The interior is a no-frills atmosphere with concrete floors and a lone plant in the corner. The environment is perfect for a quick lunch break because the space is small, with only about ten stools for seating.
Although Abunai’s food truck offers Hawaiian classics other than poke, the store focuses on poke bowls and offers a small menu of just five signature options. The build-your-own bowl starts at $12.96 with some toppings bringing an additional charge and the signature bowls range from $12.95 to $13.95.
The spicy salmon bowl ($13.95) features a hearty helping of sticky white rice and a light bed of mixed greens. The employees didn’t skimp on topping my bowl with fresh, tender salmon and coated the fish with onions, scallions and a spicy chili pepper aioli that left behind the perfect mild kick of spice.
The spicy salmon was topped with a refreshing seaweed salad, strips of nori, small red dots of masago and a quarter of an avocado. All the toppings worked well together and toned down the mild spice of the salmon.
The space also offers cans of Hawaiian soda ($2) in flavors like apple green tea and Hawaiian kona coffee ($3.50). I prefer my coffee straight out of the pot, but this blend was so smooth that even cream and sugar lovers could enjoy it as-is.
Abunai’s loyal following is there for a reason. The menu is simple and each ingredient seems hand picked and high quality. Although the store space leaves some room for improvement, the convenient location and quick service makes it a perfect lunch break just a short walk from campus.
At Poke Papa, I opted to stick to the expert’s picks and tried the signature lomi honey bowl ($11.49) with marinated salmon with red onions, tomatoes, scallions, sea salt, fresh lime and edamame all served on a bed of brown rice.
The ingredients all had a fresh, light taste and were simple even when paired with the sliced carrots, pineapple and crispy onions I added as free toppings. The varying flavors and textures in the bowl, like the zesty lime juice on top of sweet pineapple, complement each other well.
In addition to the salmon, Poke Papa has protein options like ahi tuna, shrimp, tofu and cooked minced chicken. Customers can choose between four size options, which correlate to the number of scoops of protein you’ll get with your order. The sizes vary in price from $7.49 for no protein to $12.99 for a filling four scoops. I ordered the regular size with three scoops of protein, which was enough to fill me up.
Inside the fast casual spot, minimalistic yet bright decor covers the walls with pastel doodles of cherry blossoms, D.C. monuments and fish. The space also offers three dozen chairs at light wood tables, which makes it easy to find a spot to sit and enjoy your meal.
With customizable sizes as well as more options for toppings, bases and proteins, Poke Papa hands you the reins to create the bowl that fits your appetite. The prices at Poke Papa are slightly cheaper, which means the trek over to Penn Quarter to try this new spot is worth it.