These are the days of poke. More and more OC places sell the Hawaiian foodstuff of legendary deliciousness—North Shore Poke Co. in Huntington Beach, Kawamata Seafood in Dana Point, Costco in Tustin—proving that mainlanders are finally warming up to this neglected cousin of ceviche and sashimi.
Then there's PokiNometry in Anaheim, which sells “poki,” not “poke.” “Poki,” as it says on the eatery's website, is “a new style of sushi, derived from the Hawaiian dish poke.” Before I tried it, the proclamation sounded presumptuous, as if there were something about poke to improve upon. But when I took my first spoonful, I realized PokiNometry's dish really was quite different. It's a derivative work—a product that has elements of the original—but as with “Weird Al” Yankovic's “Word Crimes,” it's an homage that could very well surpass what inspired it thanks to the sheer genius of its construction.
As with Pieology and so many others these days, PokiNometry is built on the Chipotle model. To order here is to get in a queue behind a sneeze guard and guide at least three assembly-line employees in how to build your meal. They start with the base, which can be either salad greens, a handful of store-bought tortilla-chip rounds, seasoned sushi rice or plain brown rice. No matter which you choose, the price starts at $7 for a small, $10.50 for a large. A medium allows for three scoops of fish; the large, five.
After the base comes a chance to add slivered onions, sliced cucumbers, a scoop of avocado and krab mix. Then, you pick your poisson from colorful trays that include dice-sized cubes of mashed spicy tuna, raw ahi, salmon, albacore, yellowtail, scallop, cooked shrimp or octopus. Your choice is deposited by ice-cream scoop—not directly onto your rice, chips or salad, but into a metal bowl for further seasoning.
The next station features a series of metal pumps that contain sesame oil, chile oil and ponzu. The sauces are massaged into the fish, with the finished amalgam then slid atop your bowl. If you opted for the salad, an onion vinaigrette can be doused onto the greens by squirt bottle. Just before you get to the cashier, there's one last station, where you have the option to add a shake of sesame seeds and seaweed, a pinch of diced scallions, a spoonful of DayGlo smelt eggs, a smear of wasabi, and a wad of pickled ginger.
You take your finished meal to the sparse dining room, where using a spoon or fork is more common than chopsticks. It's hard at peak times to find an open seat because PokiNometry has gone viral in its three months. The crowd skews to the young, Asian and the Instagram set, but on one visit, I witnessed a few Disneyland cast members getting dinner before work. On another, two uniformed Anaheim cops stood in line with the rest of us.
This restaurant, as with the recent Samurai Burrito, isn't for the sushi purist; it's for the explorer. What you taste in these poki bowls will be familiar, as though you've had these exact combos of components before—perhaps as a rainbow roll. But it hooks you because there's a sushi-grade level of freshness, a creaminess to the fish and a pleasant burning sensation that comes with the sauce used to dress the dish. You also get the feeling the people behind the concept mastered the mysterious alchemy of sushi long before they opened this place. They even figured out that brown rice works extraordinarily well with these ingredients, in this order, and dabbed with the nuclear-powered hot sauce called “Dynamite.”
Yet, for me, there was something else about these bowls. It was as though I've tasted this very dish before. But where? On my third trip, I asked one of the assembly-line workers who the owner was.
“Oh, it's my brother,” she responded. “He opened this place because he has a sushi bar in Tustin where the poke bowl's the most popular item, but his customers kept wanting to customize it, to trade one fish for another. So he figured he'd just open this place to make it easier.”
It was then that all the puzzle pieces came together. I realized I didn't just have this dish before, about a decade ago at that same sushi bar, but it was the first bowl of poke I ever ate.
“This sushi place in Tustin—is it Tommy's Sushi?” I asked.
“Yes!” she shrieked. “You know it?”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.