Restaurant Reviews

At Poke House, Fast-Casual Poke Debuts in Broward

The first time Memphis Garrett tried poke — real Hawaiian poke, pronounced po-kay — he was on a trip to celebrate his friend's wedding in Maui.

"Getting poke was just part of the trip. Everyone was talking about it," Garrett, the cofounder of Poke House in Fort Lauderdale, recalls. "They sounded crazy. Who gets that excited about raw fish? But then I had it."

The first dish didn't come from one of the nationally known poke joints — places such as Da Poke Shack in Kailua-Kona or Ono Seafood in Honolulu — but rather from a nameless roadside seafood spot that Garrett had passed en route to the beach. He ate it in the passenger seat of a rented Jeep as it rambled down a winding dirt road.

This particular poke, like most classic variations, was straightforward: fat cubes of fresh-cut tuna marinated in a thin soy-based sauce, tossed with chopped garlic, and scooped by the half-pound or pound into a plastic container.

Throughout his trip, Garrett stopped for as many renditions as he could, each one purchased from an austere establishment in a no-frills to-go box. Gas stations and convenience stores on the outskirts of Maui offered fresh poke alongside poi (mashed boiled taro root) and Spam sandwiches. Mom-and-pop grocers had their own secret recipes. Surf shacks peddled several kinds at once, anything from sliced shrimp with a creamy mayo sauce to whole mussels with sesame oil and diced green onions.

When Garrett returned to the mainland, the California resident began counting the poke places popping up across Los Angeles. The modern, quick-serve concepts served traditional and newfangled poke containing exotic or non-traditional ingredients. Arty and Sarah Baxter, the couple who married in Maui, noticed too.

"At first, none of us were thinking, Let's open a poke restaurant," says Garrett, a former director of operations for SBE, the hospitality company behind SLS Hotels and Katsuya. "So when work brought me to Hollywood [Florida] to open Hyde Beach Kitchen & Cocktails, I honestly just missed it."

Garrett not only missed poke, but he also wanted to create a fast-casual poke empire. Alongside the Baxters, Garrett teamed up with friend Archie Armstrong and South Florida restaurateur David Cardaci to open what Garret says is their own personal spin on the nationally trending concept.

"We want to be a one-stop shop, the best place in town to get poke," Garrett says. "Basically, we are taking poke to the next level."

Building a brand was not easy. It took more than a year to conceptualize, but Garrett is confident Poke House will garner admirers. It's all about doing one thing and doing it well. He plans to expand locally first, with two outposts slated for Boca Raton and then South Beach.

At Poke House, the setup is simple: everything — even grabbing a bottle of sake — is DIY. There are no servers, just a long wall of booths across from the counter where orders are placed. The surf-themed space is designed with beachy artwork, parrot-print wallpaper, and a glowing neon sign that reads "Poke House" in pink cursive.

You can either check off selections on a printed menu or tell the person behind the counter what you want, à la Chipotle. Only trained chefs work behind the glass barrier. Garrett says he's most concerned about quality and speed, so at the end of the day, he'd rather pay someone $5 more per hour to do it right.

The most difficult part of ordering is making a decision. With more than 20 ingredients to choose from, options range from seaweed, sesame seeds, cancha, and wasabi peas to an avocado mousse cream sauce, lotus wontons, shredded coconut, or macadamia nuts tossed in your choice of a half-dozen different marinades. Smoked trout pearls are available for an extra $1.50.

You can keep it simple and choose a new-school signature version, each one named for beaches around the world. They all include generous hunks of raw ahi tuna served with sticky white rice, green rice, black rice, or quinoa. 

There's the Cocoa Beach Florida, made with fresh hamachi marinated in spicy passionfruit salsa fresca and served with crushed plantain chips, pineapple, orange, Fresno peppers, and quinoa. The Lima Beach Peruvian Poke includes whitefish too but with a spicy ají amarillo lime emulsion, tossed with red onion, sweet potato, avocado, and cancha atop green rice.

The Sunset Beach Hawaii is closest to the original: tuna marinated in simple sesame oil and soy sauce with sliced radish, serrano chili, red onion, scallion, and avocado accented with sesame seeds, pickled ginger, and slivers of nori. The tuna, delivered fresh daily, tastes like it was just plucked from the sea, the firm texture and delicate flavor highlighted — not masked — by a light, well-balanced sauce.

The menu extends beyond bowls, with options including miniature tacos, a trio of steamed buns, and even nachos. Soon, a pokerrito too — a new menu item that's one part poke, one part burrito currently in the works. It's all good, but the Pipeline nachos stand out. Homemade wonton chips are drizzled in a creamy chipotle mayo and topped with fat slivers of salmon, salsa, scallions, cream cheese, red tobiko, and avocado. Nothing about it is nacho-like — it's far better.

If all of that fusion is too much, there's also traditional Hawaiian poke: chunks of tuna marinated in secret sauce and served by the half- or whole pound.

"For a market that doesn't know poke yet, we wanted it to be approachable," says Poke House executive chef Jeremy Powell, formerly of Hyde Beach Kitchen & Cocktails. "At the end of the day, it's all about fresh, healthy food."

Poke House 666 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale; 754-200-4555; Lunch and dinner daily 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunset Beach Hawaii poke bowl $10.95 (regular) / $14.95 (large) Build your own poke bowl $9.95 (regular) / $13.95 (large) North Shore steamed buns $9.25 Pipeline nachos $10.25