Have We Reached Peak Poke?

You may recall that earlier this month I put forth a whole bunch of flimsy predictions for 2018. If you don’t, that’s fine. They’ll probably prove to be mostly wrong anyway. The only reason I’m bringing it up is because I’d like to talk about something that didn’t make it on the list, but probably should have: Poke. Specifically, poke joints.

Some people think that we’ve reached peak poke. It’s easy to take up this sentiment if you live in Southern California, where the poke craze has jumped from non-existent to abundance at rocket-grade speed in under two years. It’s especially easy considering that whenever a poke shop opened, which seemed to be a weekly occurrence, the specs were almost always the same: Every space was small, immaculate, and sharply geometric. The menus were limited to bowls of the build-your-own variety.  The variety of fish and seafood offered left were set in stone.

I didn’t mind this. I like poke, and I knew such proliferation would eventually bring a poke joint close to my doorstep. The shop that did open four blocks away from me has turned out to be terrific, and the lines are still spilling out of their front door over a year later indicates they probably aren’t going away anytime soon. Not every poke joint has such Teflon, of course. Some have already disappeared, leaving a…slightly less saturated local poke market for fans of fresh, raw seafood cubes to choose from. Some may see these shutterings as the opening round of an eventual mass poke purge, similar to what we witnessed once the cronut craze ran its course. The lightning fast rise of the poke phenomenon certainly gives such beliefs a strong tentpole. After all, it looks like it’s outpacing demand, and we know what happens when this occurs, right?

Not in this case. We haven’t reached peak poke yet. We will hit that wall eventually – if I’m being honest, the wall is within our sights. But even when the trend smashes into the proverbial edifice, there will be enough reputable poke places left standing to turn what looks like today’s trend du jour into a mainstay on the culinary market.

Two big reasons for this. Firstly, poke is a healthier quick service option than run-of-the-mill fast food. At least it is on paper – if you ask your friendly smiling counterperson to whip you up a massive bowl teeming with five different seafood varieties and a half-dozen toppings, you can kiss those health benefits goodbye.  But more often than not, you’re not coming to your neighborhood poke joint for gluttonous purposes. You’re dropping by for a quick lunch that’s light, refreshing, and doesn’t involve a mass-produced protein wrapped in some corporate logo.

Poke isn’t all that gimmicky, either. It may look like a gimmick from the outside because poke joints have popped up in a speed normally reserved for quick-service food fads. However, the composition of a poke bowl transcends novelty status. It’s just fish, sauce, and a few Asian-inspired ingredients whose unique status wore off years ago. Compare this to a burger wedged between two crunchy disks of uncooked ramen. When you do, you’ll quickly appreciate poke as something that’s downright normal.

So normal, in fact, it’s not a stretch to consider poke to be sushi’s simpler, less-expensive cousin. You won’t find anything funky like uni or unagi at a poke joint, but you will find cubes of raw fish routinely served atop rice rectangles at the average sushi venue. It’s a genuine through-line, one that makes it feasible to envision people that dig on sushi curbing their raw fish urges with a poke bowl when time and/or money is tight. I should know – I’m one of these people.

So, no, we haven’t reached peak poke. We have, however, reached peak “poke joints with puns in their names.” At least, we can only hope.