Aloha Poke

Michael Nagrant / 03.31.16

Aloha Poke isn’t a secret Facebook function exclusive to Hawaii. It’s a new food stall in the Chicago French Market that serves traditional Hawaiian-style salads and rice bowls topped with hunks of seasoned raw fish. And it’s a beautiful thing.

You see, not all food writers—especially this one—spend every meal at five-star establishments. As a downtown office dweller, my lunchtime favorites are probably similar to yours: Jimmy John’s Vito sub, Wow Bao buns and a number of guilt-free salads for good measure. Tiring of that fast-food trio, Aloha Poke sounded like a dream.

The scene: Houston, we have a Hot Doug’s situation. I don’t know if it will always be this way, but the day I visited, the line for poke was about 30 people deep. Owner Zach Friedlander (former mixologist and GM at The Bedford) said they’re currently going through 1,000 pounds of fish a week to satisfy demand. Clearly I’m not the only Jimmy John’s burnout seeking refuge. I actually had to check if I was in the right place because Aloha’s neighbor Lillie’s Q, purveyor of fine smoked meats and one of the best bottled barbecue sauces in the country, was dead.

Friedlander projects a calming and gracious warmth, the human equivalent of a Coleman camping lantern. When I asked him how he got into the poke game, I half-expected him to tell me the story of a recipe passed down through generations.

>“I wish. I’m not one of those dudes who had a concept or dreamed to open a 1930s shipwreck-themed cocktail bar,” he said. “Mostly I knew I wanted to open a sustainable, fun place where I could really provide some great hospitality.“I told myself I had to open a place before I was 31, and I’m 30 now. But it almost didn’t happen. You know that location on Milwaukee where [The Roost Carolina Kitchen] is? I saw it and the numbers were right, but for some reason I couldn’t pull the trigger. So after they opened, I kept going there and spending a lot of money. I felt like I had to beat myself up for missing that boat. So after that, I grabbed the French Market spot, and here we are.”

The food: The setup at Aloha is similar to Chipotle: Pick a size (big, little or veg), base (mixed greens or white or brown rice), fish (marinated or “naked,” salmon or tuna) and add various toppings and sauces. For the indecisive, there are also five pre-customized house bowls ($6.50-$9.50, depending on size and toppings). You want the Crunch bowl. The veggies included—cucumber, scallion, edamame and jalapeno—are so crunchy and cool you’ll swear they’ve been sitting in the greatest lettuce crisper of all time.

But what really makes the bowl is glistening tobiko, or flying fish roe, and tempura-fried onion. Each bite includes a salty, satisfying pop of that mix. The final touch is a fiery, sweet combination of chili aioli and samurai sauce, which is a sweet soy glaze similar to unagi sauce. If samurai sauce rings a bell, it’s probably because it’s a recipe from Tony D’Alessandro (Friedlander calls him the “sauce boss”), who also serves the stuff at his place, Big and Little’s. You still get to pick your fish with Aloha’s house bowls. Both the tuna and salmon are fantastic with a creamy smooth finish like freshly scooped sherbet. The tuna is a touch richer, but marinated versions of each burst with soy and sesame.

The thing about poke bowls is they’re simple and there’s not much to hide behind. Every element has to be perfect. Though it didn’t detract too much, I found the rice to be a little soggy, something that was consistent across four different bowls I tried, whether the rice was brown or white. Friedlander acknowledged this and said it’s been tricky. He’s tried a few different rice cookers, eventually reaching out to Joong Boo Market, an Asian grocery and Korean restaurant, and asking for the biggest industrial cooker they had. He’s working on the texture.

None of the other house bowls were as compelling as the Crunch, though I liked the sweetness of pineapple and maui onion in the Aloha bowl. The 808, named after a Hawaiian area code, was drizzled with fabulous yuzu ranch, a creamy white dressing exploding with citrus flavor.

Bottom line: Aloha Poke is a unique, fresh and tasty alternative to the usual afternoon nap-inducing Loop lunch choices. The crew here has to make some adjustments so the rice comes out firmer and less soggy, but the marinated raw fish and vegetable toppings are so refreshing that the rice texture hardly matters.

Mini-Review: Aloha Poke Co.
131 N. Clinton St. 312-877-5336
Rating: ** (out of four)

This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.