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A place for poke

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

Taking a cue from the Los Angeles culinary scene, restaurateur Chris Park has opened a casual eatery in Hillcrest devoted mainly to poke, those raw seafood salads studded in sesame seeds, and born a few decades ago in Hawaii.

Poke Go also folds into its menu a few Korean-inspired dishes that reflect Park’s native roots. He runs the establishment with his sister, Jennifer Won, after operating a couple of seafood establishments locally, including the former North Park Fish Market and Grill.

Spicy pork platter (Photo by Frank Sabatini, Jr.)

Spicy pork platter (Photo by Frank Sabatini, Jr.)

Before opening his latest venture, Park noted the success of similar poke eateries emerging throughout L.A., and felt that San Diego was a good fit for one. And he’s probably correct, given that restaurants tend to relegate poke to their appetizer menus rather than giving it full-platter status. Also, depending where you go, it can be pricey.

Here, a platter of poke with various options costs $8.99. You first choose your seafood: ahi, salmon, or cooked shrimp or octopus, before selecting a “base” of white or brown rice or salad. For vegetarians, grilled tofu can be substituted for the fish, but to call that poke seems like a far stretch.

Next up are the seasoning options, which include wasabi, teriyaki or shoyu, a light soy sauce that traditionally drapes the cubed fish in conjunction with a touch of sesame oil. The customized platters also include a choice of minced imitation crab dressed lightly in mayo, or the basic macaroni salad you’d find on a Hawaiian plate lunch.

Combo ahi-salmon poke platter (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Combo ahi-salmon poke platter (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Garnished with seaweed salad, sparkling-orange capelin roe and an orange slice, the platters appear as colorful as a flowering canyon in Kauai.

A friend and I shared the ahi-salmon with shoyu. The flavor was light and the fish tasted ultra-fresh. But we were both partial to the ahi because the texture was lusher. I realized that when it comes to raw salmon, I’d rather eat it sliced thin in a crafty sushi roll or plated simply with capers and fresh dill.

We chose brown rice, which was somewhat plain until squirting it with the house-made gochujang sauce, which accompanies Park’s twist on bibimbap that we also tried. The cherry-red condiment, a Korean staple, actually sang well to everything, offering an addictive tang from chili peppers, soy sauce and sesame oil.

Bibi Go with egg and Korean-style beef from Poke Go in Hillcrest (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Bibi Go with egg and Korean-style beef from Poke Go in Hillcrest (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Even when dining in, meals are served in either plastic or cardboard to-go boxes, a money-saving tactic that helps keep menu prices down.

For the bibimbap, a Korean dish of veggies and marinated beef crowned with a sunny-side-up egg, the boxed presentation lacked the classic, sizzling thrill you get when the meal is served in heavy hot pots. But the contrast of the warm beef and egg against the cool red cabbage, carrots and cucumbers duly compensated. The combined flavors were uplifting while striking a perfect balance of roughage and protein.

Our favorite non-fish dish was the spicy pork platter featuring tender ribbons of the meat cloaked in a glaze made with Asian pears, onions and chili peppers. It had a sweet and spicy depth of flavor, triggering an instant “yum” when we each took our first bite.

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 8.41.21 AMPark’s sister makes the kimchi, which we ordered as an additional side dish. It was my companion’s first-ever encounter with the seasoned, fermented cabbage. And he ate it with gusto. I was particularly fond of it as well because the spice level was higher than what I normally find outside the Convoy Street area, with just enough heat reaching the sinuses.

The food at Poke Go is clean and straightforward, and served within a brightly designed space accented with Hawaiian-theme prints and a couple of surfboards hanging overhead. Though simple and casual, and despite San Diego’s abundance of Asian kitchens, Park seems to have filled an overlooked niche aimed at giving consumers a good bang for their bucks.

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