Poke is sushi imagined differently, but the recent proliferation of poke in Los Angeles has made for a proliferation of sameness: A sterile white setting, fish that may or may not have been bought in bulk and frozen, tired swirls of Sriracha mayo over eerily homogenous bowls of ahi or salmon. “Poke” is probably in the restaurant name, and chances are that it’s slightly punny.
But flavor promises are kept at Tikifish, a poke restaurant that is different from all other poke restaurants in this city. This is more of a seafood restaurant than just a place that sells poke: Perfect, mobile sushi bowls are juxtaposed on the menu with two Mexican ceviches and one Peruvian ceviche. Uni is served daily. Fusion isn’t stigmatized here, and the poke is both Japanese and Hawaiian with a humor endemic to Los Angeles.
You can fill your bowl with not only salmon and ahi tuna, but seared albacore or shrimp (sustainably fished, MSC-certified, and brought in fresh every morning), and you will be allowed, if not encouraged, to mix the house-made ponzu sauces infused with tangy garlic, spice, or citrus. Homemade macaroni salad is a topping. Chances are that you will eat something really good while sitting next to pretty seashells, air plants, vintage exposed-bulb lights, and the psychotropic yellow and turquoise mural designed by Bobby Kim from California streetwear brand The Hundreds.
The Culver City/Palms hangout is an eight-month-old love child from Hamasaku’s former executive chef, Wonny Lee (his corporate chef, Lionel, ventured from there to Tikifish with him). The food, as Wonny describes, is simple but elevated, with nothing pretentious or forbidding on the menu. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity is key. This is apparent in the smoky seared albacore, fresh salmon, ripe-red ahi, and shrimp cooked in its own shell and then peeled, a method which better retains its salty-sweet flavor.
The restaurant has soft lighting, wood tables, and an eclectic mix of trinkets that speak to Asian and native Hawaiian subcultures. It’s homey, meaning you can wear your favorite Canadian tuxedo there.
Owning a small poke place has given Wonny the room and width for creative ideation. He wanted his signature Aloha Albacore bowl to wink at the flavors of a popular sushi restaurant dish that pairs albacore sashimi with garlic ponzu and frizzled onions. Ceviche is included in the concept because ceviche is delicious. Homemade POG, a nostalgic Hawaiian drink made with pineapple, orange, and guava, churns alongside cucumber-mint limeade.
Wonny’s go-to bowl is, of course, the most simple, with ahi tuna, cucumber, green and white onions, spicy ponzu, sesame seeds, fried shallots, and nori slivers. This is the bowl that speaks to the classic renditions you might find in Hawaii’s Foodland grocery stores, or at mom and pop shops that, around four years ago, made poke come alive in Los Angeles and Orange County.
But back to those ceviches, which have a personal connection to Wonny, a frequent traveler to Ensenada and Rosarito. The Ensenada Coctel de Mariscos features shrimp, octopus, surimi crab, avocado and cucumber slices, pico de gallo, and lime aioli doused in a slightly spicy tomato-based sauce and served simply with saltines. There’s an unadorned “Classic Mexican Style” with just citrus-marinated snapper, lime, and pico de gallo. The Peruvian rendition melds snapper, aji amarillo sauce (think pepper), red onion, cilantro corn, and earthy roasted yam.
Your poke bowl, meanwhile, might come together like this: A few pats of sushi-grade white (or brown) rice get pressed with care into a clear plastic bowl. The rice is seasoned with sushi-zu, a “sweet and tangy” sushi vinegar, which lends some umami you didn’t realize steamed rice could have. You glide a step or two over to the sauces and accoutrement and, well, ask for anything you see in front of you. There is no wrong way to poke here, although balance helps. Sweet corn might pair well with cucumbers, which cut through the sweetness. Tart seaweed becomes a salad mixed with sweeter sesame oil. The sweet shrimp complements smokier albacore.
I created a bowl with ground tuna flavored with spicy ponzu and chili oil, which Wonny placed for me, delicately, in the center of warm, sticky rice. I then added the sweet shrimp mixed with radish, carrot, cucumber, green onion, white onion, three ponzu sauces, and a dash of their cilantro-corn salsa around the spicy tuna nucleus. This is the best bowl of poke I’ve ever had. Not blow-smoke-up-your-ass the best, but the actual best.
Tikifish is a neighborhood restaurant. The shop has regulars, and the people who were curious, like me, to see how they subvert the notion of a traditional poke restaurant while honoring the flavors of a traditional poke restaurant. If you close your eyes and sit with your back toward the sun-facing front window, you could be at a poke shack in Maui, wrapped in island warmth as you scrape the last grain of rice from the rim of your bowl into your mouth.
Wonny thinks that the trendiness of poke is a good thing. The more exposure people have to a flavor that is outside of their proverbial
box bowl, the better. And if the proliferation of poke led you to Tikifish, well, then you’ve won.
This is probably why when Wonny told me that a second location is opening in Playa Vista in a few weeks, my heart jumped a little. Los Angeles is not wanting for poke places, but it certainly needs more Tikifish.