The poke trend in Arkansas shows no signs of slowing down even as some in the restaurant industry are questioning whether poke has peaked.
Poke (pronounced poh-KAY and rhyming with OK) is a Hawaiian dish that features raw, sushi-grade seafood, often tuna, cut into cubes and combined with almost anything but often scallions, sweet onion, seaweed, kukui nuts, soy sauce and sesame oil. It’s a staple in Hawaii (the word “poke” in Hawaiian means to slice or cut into pieces) and has been described as Hawaiian ceviche, Hawaiian salad or sushi in a bowl.
Poke restaurants started sprouting in Los Angeles in late 2015, and in late 2016 the National Restaurant Association declared it a hot trend for 2017.
Ohia Poke and Poke Hula were among the first poke restaurants to open in Little Rock, in early 2018, Ohia at 220 W. Sixth St. downtown and Poke Hula at 425 E. Third, also downtown. (An aside: Journalists are often reluctant to definitively cite anything as “the first” because we dread getting that indignant early morning call from the business that declares itself the real, true “first.”)
Au Tran, an owner of Ohia Poke, first tried poke on a trip to California, “and I fell in love.” Poke was so tasty and healthy that Tran wanted to bring the dish to Arkansas. Tran and her business partner, Sonny Nguyen, opened that first restaurant in January 2018, after receiving help from the Arkansas Small Business & Technology Development Center, which provided market data and analysis.
The reception to poke was enthusiastic enough that Tran and Nguyen soon found themselves opening two more, first in west Little Rock and, planned for this week, at 623 Beechwood St. (the former Izard Chocolate) in Hillcrest in Little Rock.
For its part, Poke Hula now also has locations in Little Rock’s Heights neighborhood and in Conway and North Little Rock.
Tran’s customers praise poke’s freshness, she said, a quality Ohia Poke works hard to achieve. “Everything we do, we do in the house,” she said.
Benyapa Lerttanatorn, originally from Hot Springs, opened Ohana Poke Hawaiian Cuisine at 1135 W. Martin Luther King Blvd. in Fayetteville, near the University of Arkansas campus, just two weeks ago. She thinks it’s the first poke restaurant in northwest Arkansas.
Lerttanatorn had seen the poke restaurant proliferation in Little Rock and thought poke might be a good fit for NWA. “A lot of people here, they exercise and like healthy stuff and all that,” she said.
Business is steady, Lerttanatorn said, but “people are still learning.”
“We’re kind of in the South and people don’t know about it,” she said, “because usually it’s in the West, California and all that, and New York and bigger cities.”
A November article in Eater, a food and restaurant news website, cited the then-recent closures of several small chains of poke restaurants and wondered whether the poke craze was about to subside.
The longevity of the poke trend is something that Tran says she has considered. “I don’t know about the future,” Tran said, but she does know that Little Rock has become more open to “diverse dining styles.”
Despite the Eater article, poke continues to be gaining interest, based on statistics provided to Arkansas Business by Technomic, a food service consulting company based in Chicago. Technomic said there has been:
► An 8.1% increase of poke menu mentions in the last year and a 159.8% increase in the last five years.
► A 3.4% increase in the number of operators placing poke on the menu in the last year and 101.7% in the last five years.
Technomic said about 121 restaurant operators in the United States offer poke.
Poke’s popularity makes a lot of sense. Most Americans are completely comfortable eating sushi, poke can be healthy, and poke is perfectly adapted to the one-bowl meal trend, which in turn is perfectly adapted to fast-casual dining (and to Instagram).
Lerttanatorn said she’d certainly consider opening additional poke restaurants in northwest Arkansas if business warrants it. When her diners try poke, she said, they “love it. It’s something new.”