Only a couple of blocks from the monorail in Belltown, people sit huddled around tables made of barrels eating colorful fish from bowls with chopsticks.
Ukulele music plays from the speakers in the small restaurant.
The food is poke, the Hawaiian dish based on raw marinated fish with rice and toppings. In the past few years in Seattle, people have been lining up all the way down the block at poke restaurants all over the city for a bowl of the customizable delicacy.
To be a successful poke restaurant the poke must be served quickly, as raw fish doesn’t keep long. Vincent Tanzil, the owner of FOB Poke Bar in Belltown, said making a good impression is the key to keeping business moving.
“You have to keep a good price point,” said Tanzil. “You’ve gotta have people like you.”
FOB Poke Bar opened its doors to the public in March. It was part of the wave of poke restaurants that opened across Seattle in the last two years. There are now more than 14 poke restaurants just in the Seattle area, with many more open in Bellevue, Renton and Issaquah.
“I think there is poke everywhere because it is easy,” Tanzil, said. “There’s no cooking in the kitchen.”
Tanzil and his two brothers came to the United States from Indonesia. They lived in Los Angeles and worked as sushi chefs before moving to Seattle.
“I saw poke bowls starting to get popular in L.A. and saw an opportunity in Seattle,” Tanzil said.
FOB Poke Bar’s name is a twist on the derogatory phrase “fresh off the boat,” in reference to immigrants who have just arrived in the United States. Tanzil wants to give the term a positive connotation, one that in evokes individuality, as well as the freshness of the fish that goes into their poke bowls.
The poke bowls available at FOB Poke Bar focus on variety — what Tanzil calls California style poke. These bowls are served as a mix of rice and fresh salad. The fish goes on top, and is surrounded by toppings of pickled ginger, seaweed, artificial crab salad, fresh fish roe and more.
The focus on variety and options is a staple of mainland poke restaurants, but the Poke served outside of Hawaii is different than the island version, says Tiffany Tang, who originally came from Hawaii.
“The most garnish poke gets in Hawaii is a little bit of ginger or seaweed, and that’s it, the focus is on freshness and the fish itself,” Tang said.
Tang came to Seattle to study engineering in 2014. When she lived in Hawaii, she would often get fresh poke from small neighborhood spots with friends after school.
The word poke means “to slice” or “to cut into pieces” in the Hawaiian language. Poke in Hawaii is simply cubed fish that has been marinated and seasoned. It can be bought by the pound in supermarkets, and when it is served as a meal in a restaurant it comes as cold fish over hot rice.
“You don’t really realise the food and culture are unique until you move away,” Tang said. She is often disappointed with mainland poke, and opts to buy sashimi-grade fish from Uwajimaya to prepare it herself.
“Mainland poke has more of a focus on aesthetic,” Tang said, pulling up pictures on her phone of extravagant poke bowls with many colored toppings, and then contrasting these with pictures from her neighborhood poke shop on Oahu. The poke there is modest — fish on rice, served in a styrofoam to go container.
goPoké, a restaurant in the International District that opened last December, aims to bring the flavor of Hawaii to Seattle. They serve poke bowls with a colorful presentation, but they also sell poke by the pound.
Like FOB Poke Bar, goPoké is owned by three brothers, Bayley, Michael, and Trinh Le. The restaurant sits on a corner right by Hing Hay Park, and has a clean, plain decor and atmosphere inside. A sign with their green logo of a fish shaped bowl swings on a pole on the corner of the building.
“We chose the ID because it’s a meeting place,” Le said. “We wanted to disrupt the idea that the ID was just for Chinese food.”
Le envisions his restaurant as a community hotspot, a place where Hawaiians can go to eat food and to feel nostalgic.
Le explained that the name goPoké comes from Hawaiian pidgin English, a dialect that has elements of both the English and Hawaiian languages.
“Hawaiians speak with pidgin, so things are short,” Le said. “So instead of saying go to the store, we say go store, so, go poke.”
In the Hawaiian language, there is no accent mark on the “e” in poke, but the brothers at goPoké chose to include one. Michael Le explained that so often it is mispronounced as the verb “to poke” that they added the accent to clear up the confusion.
“I have noticed that places will misspell poke, sometimes adding an accent over the ‘e’ — this isn’t correct because we don’t have this symbol in our language,” said Natalie Bruecher, a Seattleite with native Hawaiian, or Kānaka Maoli heritage.
With or without the accent mark, poke has made its way into the mainstream and exploded in popularity.
“Places in L.A. are starting to close because there are too many poke places,” Tanzil said.
Poke is still going strong in Seattle. Small neighborhood spots like the 45th Stop N Shop and Poke Bar in Wallingford regularly have a line out the door, and down the block on the weekends.
“In Hawaii, we would sell the fish door to door,” Le said. “We’re not restaurant people, we’re just people people.”