How poke became the biggest Dallas food trend of the last 15 minutes

Look at that gorgeous bowl: glistening cubes of raw tuna, lacy greens, watermelon-pink radish, purple-black flakes of seaweed. Delicious-looking? You bet. It begs to be Instagrammed.

In a town that loves its sushi, it's not surprising that poke (pronounced poh-kay) – the country's latest and coolest food craze – has taken off like mad.

Hawaiians have been eating poke forever – perhaps almost literally, and probably well before Captain Cook arrived in 1778, according to food historians. Traditionally it was a simple snack of diced raw fish (poke means "to cut crosswise" in Hawaiian) – originally reef fish – mixed with seaweed (limu), salt and roasted, crushed kukui nuts (inamona).

"In Hawaii, we still eat inamona- and limu-seasoned poke, usually called Hawaiian or limu poke, but it's the ahi shoyu poke that's the most popular, both in the islands and abroad," explained Helen Chen in an excellent history of the dish in Hawai'i Magazine in January. Ahi replaced bony reef fish following the rise of long-line fishing in the Pacific, and descendants of Asian sugar and pineapple plantation laborers – many of them Japanese – began seasoning the raw fish dish with shoyu (soy sauce) and sesame oil.

Three poke bowls from Freshfin Poke Co. In foreground: a poke bowl with ahi, shrimp, green and red onion, watermelon radish, hijiki seaweed, Maldon salt and "umami shoyu" sauce.

Poke didn't become very popular in Hawaii until the 1970s, according to Chen, who adds that most Hawaiians know it as "the marinated salad we buy by the pound for potlucks and parties." Oahu restaurants started tossing it to order and serving it over rice in the mid-1990s.

When I first tasted it, at a stand in Kauai in the early 1980s, I thought "wow – wonder when that's going to take off on the mainland!?"

Three decades later is when: Sweetfin Poké open in Los Angeles in 2015, making a huge splash with its customizable bowls.

It's in that form that the trend – fueled by Americans' fondness for Chipotle-style build-your-own-dish fast-casual dining – has taken off nationwide. That beautiful bowl, however, ordered build-it-yourself-style at a counter, bears little resemblance to the traditional Hawaiian snack that inspired it.

In any case, the trend is exploding in Dallas: Pok the Raw Bar opened in West Village in January, and since then three other dedicated poke spots have debuted – Freshfin Poke Co. on Lower Greenville, Go Fish Poke in Preston Center and Poké Bop in Oak Lawn. (Preceding the Dallas proper places, poke places opened in Arlington and Carrollton, and new places continue to spring up in Plano and Richardson.)

But it's not just the dedicated poke spots that are in on the action: Restaurants from Pei Wei Asian Diner to splashy new Design District bar-restaurant Wheelhouse to Montlake Cut, chef Nick Badovinus' upscale seafood place, all offer spins on the dish.

Wheelhouse's yellowfin poke bowl with brown rice, avocado, jalapeno, shiitake, cabbage and sesame (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News)

In early May, Bowls & Tacos opened in Deep Ellum, dedicating half of its menu to poke bowls. This fall the owners of TJ's Seafood Market – which already offers a variety of poke bowls at both of its fish restaurants – plan to open Malibu Poke in Oak Lawn.

Depending on where you order a poke bowl, it can be pretty terrific, or bland and dull, or anything in-between.

The classic ahi bowls I tasted at five dedicated poke places in Dallas tended toward the dull. The diced tuna, rather than being tossed in flavorful sesame oil and salt or shoyu, often tasted like plain, unsauced fish. Usually the bowls themselves were undersauced or not well mixed. At its dullest, it just tastes like a bunch of raw, undressed cut-up ingredients set on rice.

Meanwhile, there are few things I find more off-putting than raw farmed salmon, which figures prominently in many of the bowls. And if you're looking for something light and low-carb, you'll want to consider a base other than white rice (which by the way is often under-seasoned or not seasoned at all).

Sometimes the seafood or other protein is cooked – especially shrimp; it might even be chicken or tofu.

The best bowl I've tasted (by far) was a half-ahi, half-king-crab, beautifully sauced-and-tossed (and expensive, at $22) number at Montlake Cut. My favorite bowl at a dedicated poke place was a Classic Ahi Bowl with cauliflower rice as a base at Pok the Raw Bar.

What follows is my take on five dedicated Poke restaurants in Dallas. At each, I ordered the most traditional tuna bowl offered (often called "classic ahi" or somesuch) – and sampled another bowl or two as well. Prices listed are for the smallest classic ahi bowl offered. Health department inspection stores were all over 90 when the restaurants were visited, except one, where noted.

Pok the Raw Bar

A "classic tuna" poke bowl, with cauliflower rice as the base, at Pok the Raw Bar in West Village

Order at the counter at this sleek West Village spot and a server delivers your poke to your perch at the counter, or outside to a table on the shady patio. Owned by two Southern Methodist University undergraduates, Pok attracts a beautiful crowd. (How do they look so good when they've come straight from nearby SoulCycle?)

Classic ahi bowl: $9.95. I paid a $2 upcharge for cauliflower rice on the classic tuna bowl, a lively mix of good-quality tuna tossed with red onion, hijiki (a type of seaweed) and scallions in a nicely seasoned "classic" sauce, topped with macadamia nuts and sprinkled with togarashi (Japanese chile condiment). Flavorful, satisfying and light.

What's different: With the ordering counter in back and a central bar, Pok the Raw Bar feels like a see-and-be-seen scene. Bases also include citrus-kale and kelp zucchini slaw.

Perks: Sake, beer and wine; matcha drinks and soul shots.

Instagram-friendly? Awesomely, especially on the patio.

Downside: A line out the door at lunchtime.

Pok the Raw Bar, 3699 McKinney Ave. (in West Village), Dallas. 214-484-1139.

Freshfin Poké Co.

Freshfin Poke Co.'s signature Hawaiian OG poke bowl with one tweak: half ahi tuna and half shrimp, instead of all ahi. Plus: green and red onion; watermelon radish; hijiki seaweed; Maldon salt and "umami shoyu" sauce.

Bowls, whether custom or signature, are assembled before your eyes in Freshfin's invitingly spare and light-filled space on Lower Greenville. Ahi, shrimp, yellowtail and salmon are offered, though yellowtail was not available when I visited. The shrimp was better than average quality; other ingredients were fresh and appealing.

Classic ahi bowl: $9.95. Hawaiian OG - decent quality diced ahi with sliced cucumber, scallions and red onion, plus shaved seasonal radish (recently watermelon radish), hijiki, Maldon salt and "umami shoyu" (a soy-based sauce) – may be ordered with the base of your choice. Half quinoa and half chopped romaine was nice, though the ingredients seemed to be completely undressed. A staffer was happy to give me more dressing, and once I tossed it in (not easy, as it was tightly packed), it was pretty likable. On another bowl, I liked the black sesame emulsion.

Perks: Good choices for bases, including spiralized raw zucchini "noodles." A friendly staffer assembled our bowls with great care.

Instagram-friendly? You bet -- clear bowls, white counters, natural light in front window.

Downside: The unappealingly fatty farmed salmon that stars in many of the signature bowls tasted poorly farmed.

Freshfin Poke Co., 3611A Greenville Ave., Dallas. 214-730-0576.

Bowls & Tacos

A classic poke bowl at Bowls and Tacos on E. Commerce St in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas, Tuesday, May 9, 2017. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)

The owners of Brain Dead Brewing Co. opened this colorful spot in a former gas station in Deep Ellum in early May.

What's different: Bowls & Tacos departs from the build-your-own idea, offering five poke bowls that are more original than most, along with the tacos that make up half the menu.

Classic ahi bowl: $12. While the flavors of the Classic Poke Bowl – decent-quality, underseasoned, raw tuna, seaweed salad, nori strips, diced onion and sesame seeds – made sense, batons of fried spam detracted from the cool texture, maybe even heating up the raw fish too much. This one just didn't come together well for me. On the other hand, the place had been open only a few days, so I'll probably give it another chance.

Perks: Terrific tacos! (Loved the lengua on a corn tortilla, and barbacoa on a house-made flour tortilla.)

Instagram-friendly? Not. The tables outside, where the light is best, are bright blue and red, as are the trays.

Downside: All are served on rice.

Bowls & Tacos, 3400 Commerce St., Dallas. 214-377-9274.

Go Fish Poke

"Classic tuna" poke bowl with edamame, avocado cucumber, scallions and sesame at Go Fish Poke

This Preston Center poke place offers the widest selection of fish: tuna, red snapper, scallops, yellowtail, shrimp and more. Build a custom bowl from a sushi-bar-style checklist, or go for a signature bowl – only one of which includes salmon; pick it up when your buzzer rings.

Classic ahi bowl: $10.95. Prodigious amounts of edamame and ripe avocado chunks on the Classic Tuna bowl overwhelmed the decent if underseasoned diced ahi, set on a lot of bland sushi rice. I loved the thin-sliced marinated cucumber and black sesame seeds, but the bowl lacked sauce and balance. A custom red snapper and shrimp bowl on organic baby greens with seaweed salad, cucumbers, scallions, tobiko (smelt roe) and ponzu was more appealing, though the red snapper was stringy and the shrimp had poor texture.

Perks: Hawaiian and Asian craft beers, sake, compostable paper bowls.

Instagram-friendly? Sorta kinda – best spot is at the grey speckled counter in the window.

Downside: Most recent health department inspection score was 81 – worrisome for a place serving raw fish.

Go Fish Poke, 6030 Luther Lane, Dallas. 214-792-9517.

Poké Bop

Poke Bop Classic with ahi tuna, red onion, scallions, hijiki seaweed, cucumber, kaiware seaweed, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and soy sauce (Ron Baselice/The Dallas Morning News)

Order at the counter where a sushi chef works at this small, friendly place, and your order is delivered to the table.

Classic ahi bowl: $11.95. All the ingredients were fresh and appealing on the Poké Bop Classic, but the bowl – decent-quality tuna, thin-sliced cucumber, slivered red onion, hijiki, sprouts and sesame seeds on green tea rice – was bland and underseasoned.

What's different: Poke donuts – rice rings covered in assorted sliced raw fish – and poke-filled, nori-wrapped "poké-ritto."

Perks: Interesting add-ins, such as shiso (a beautifully perfumed Japanese herb), and fresh crab mix. Next time I'd order a custom bowl.

Downside: Fish quality on the donuts wasn't great; the nori on the poké-ritto was limp.

Instagram-friendly? Gleamingly so.

Poké Bop, 4103 Lemmon Ave., Dallas. 214-521-7653.

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