59°F
weather icon Mostly Cloudy

Changing dining trends make poke popular in Las Vegas — VIDEO

Updated September 12, 2017 - 9:45 pm

Poke — pronounced poh-keh, which is the marinated raw fish so loved by Hawaiians — seems to be following the same path as sushi.

Sushi in its purest form is as basic as it gets, just rice (that’s actually the “sushi” part) and raw fish. Its mutation in this country into elaborately conceived and named rolls that no sushi master in Japan would recognize has been paralleled only by its skyrocketing popularity.

And so it is with poke.

“I was talking to one of my fish guys from Hawaii,” said Roy Ellamar, a native of the Big Island who is executive chef of Harvest at Bellagio. “Ten years ago in Miami, they wanted to do a poke bar and they said, ‘No way; people won’t eat that stuff.’ And now it’s everywhere.”

There seem to be a couple of reasons for that.

“I put it down to the fact that everybody is seeking out lighter, healthier options,” Ellamar said. “I think dining that way is very on-trend. And it tastes good.”

Kip Goo, a partner in Paina Cafe, which has one location in Las Vegas and two in Hawaii, also sees the growth of poke as a result of changing tastes.

“People have gotten a lot more acclimated to the raw-fish theme because of the sushi craze,” Goo said. “It really is a form of sashimi, but Hawaiians call it poke.”

Hawaiian native Dennis Cornelio has owned Hawaiian Style Poke on Wynn Road near Spring Mountain Road since 2008, and he’s seen the change within poke itself.

“It’s becoming popular now because poke shops are two totally different things,” Cornelio said. “The ones that are opening now serve poke bowls. They serve them with avocados, cucumber and seaweed salad, and you have your poke at the bottom and your rice goes down deeper.”

Definitely not old-school poke — which is fish, seaweed and inamona, a condiment made of roasted kui nuts — but Goo makes no apologies. A native of Oahu, he says his partners created the whole poke-bowl phenomenon.

“Poke has been around forever,” he said, adding that it got its start in the days before refrigeration as a way to preserve raw fish. “But nobody put it into a bowl to make it a meal. It used to be just an appetizer. We created the poke bowl.”

He said his customers tend to be younger, but really extend across the demographic range.

“I feel like people have adapted to it — not just Hawaiian or Asian people, who are used to eating raw fish, but everybody,” he said. “It’s so diverse now. But the younger crowd is definitely prevalent.”

Paina Cafe serves ahi, tako (or octopus) and salmon, as well as tofu as an alternative. They normally marinate it for an hour.

“That’s the Hawaiian style, whether you’re marinating in a sauce or seasoning,” he said. “It sets us apart from the people who cube the fish and then throw a sauce on it to serve.”

Ellamar, too, said that’s an important step.

“A lot of places are just squirting sauce right over the fish after they put it in the bowl,” he said. “Poke should be marinated for 30 to 40 minutes so the flavor works its way into the fish and mellows it out.”

Ahi is definitely the most popular fish at Paina Cafe, Goo said, and they serve it in five variations, including a spicy one that’s their biggest seller “by far.”

Cornelio said he also serves ahi, which he marinates in a number of styles, but the way he serves it hews closer to the classic.

“I just stick to my authentic way,” he said. “That’s what people come in for, poke and rice. That’s what I do. I have a lot of customers that don’t care too much for all those other things on it.”

But Cornelio said most of his poke sales are by the container, whether it be a quarter-pound, full pound or trays up to 6 pounds.

Ellamar said the key is to use fresh fish.

“In Hawaii, we use all sorts of fish,” he said. “If the flesh is too soft, you scrape it. A nice, firm fish is good — especially in a restaurant, because you want to see the nice cubes.”

And he’s a bit of a traditionalist.

“For me, poke should have a seaweed component,” he said. “Fresh seaweed, and we also use inamona, a dry condiment made of roasted kukui nuts. Nowadays, we get a little fancy and we add the soy sauce and the chiles. You can even put in dried seaweed like furikake, green onions, things like that. In the restaurant we elevate it a little bit. We make our own furikake, we use barrel-aged tamari.”

Ellamar said he’s currently using kampachi from Kona on the big island, where he’s from.

Cornelio said he’s noticed a real change since 2008.

“I’ve seen a whole lot of people come in and they ask, ‘What is poke?’ ” he said. “I explained it to them. Now, I don’t need to. They just come in. The word’s already passed on.”

“I think it’s great that so many restaurants — not just poke bowl shops but real legit restaurants — have a version of poke, people calling it poke and not tuna tartare,” Ellamar said. “To see Hawaiian food entering the mainstream is a good thing.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Entertainment Videos
Heavier traffic expected from EDC festival attendees
Electric Daisy Carnival attendees began to vacate the Las Vegas Motor Speedway starting before 5 a.m., the majority heading south on Interstate 15.
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
DJ Steve Aoki visits Las Vegas comic book store
DJ Steve Aoki visits Torpedo Comics in Las Vegas Friday, May 17, 2019, for a signing for his new comic book series "Neon Future." (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas Smith & Wollensky opens at The Venetian
After 18 years, the Smith & Wollensky location on Las Vegas’ south Strip closed in 2017, to be re-born two years later with a rib-cutting — instead of a ribbon-cutting — in The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal)
Colin Cantwell, Creator Of Iconic Star Wars Ships Visits Vegas
Colin Cantwell, who created and designed such "Star Wars" ships as the X-Wing fighter, and Death Star, met fans at Rogue Toys in Las Vegas today. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Beauty & Essex in Las Vegas makes an EDC Wonder Wheel
In honor of the Electric Daisy Carnival, Beauty & Essex at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas makes its Wonder Wheel party-worthy. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Giada talks Vegas Uncork’d
Giada De Laurentiis talks during Aperitivo Hour, a Vegas Uncork'd event, at her Caesars Palace restaurant, Pronto, May 10, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Scenes from Vegas Uncork’d 2019 on the Las Vegas Strip
The 13th edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit brought four days of food, wine, celebrity chefs and parties to town, May 9-12. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Three ingredients Gordon Ramsay can’t live without
Bon Appetit's Andy Baraghani interviews the "Hell's Kitchen" chef during a Vegas Uncork'd event at Caesars Palace, May 11, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vegas Uncork’d launches wiith bubbles and a blade
Dozens of chefs representing some of the Strip’s top restaurants gathered Thursday at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas to launch the 2019 edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bunky the Clown at the clown convention
Bob "Bunky the Clown" Gretton talks about his life as a clown and the Clown Convention which was in Las Vegas at Texas Station this week. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Frying soft-shell crab at Lola’s in Las Vegas
At Lola’s: A Louisiana Kitchen in Las Vegas, soft-shell crab is breaded and fried and served either as an appetizer, po’boy or platter. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
The Stove in Henderson makes Pecan Pie Pancakes
At The Stove in Henderson, chef/partner Antonio Nunez stacks buttermilk pancakes with pecans and dulce de leche and tops them pie crust crumbs. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vinnie Paul remembered at Count's Vamp'd
The late rocker's favorite table at one of his favorite clubs in Las Vegas. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
4DX movie experience at Red Rock
4DX movie experience during a demo reel at Red Rock. (Christopher Lawrence/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
What To Do On May The 4th
There are plenty of events going on May the 4th this year around Las Vegas. Celebrate Star Wars and Comic Book Day all at once. The Rogue Toys, the 501st, Rebel Legion and Millennium Fandom Bar are all hosting fun events to help celebrate your geek-dom. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Water Sports Introduces New Attraction At Lake Las Vegas
Las Vegas Water Sports will debut its new aqua park attraction at Lake Las Vegas Days this weekend. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Making the Space Invader at Greene St. Kitchen in Las Vegas
Lysa Huerta, pastry cook at Greene St. Kitchen at the Palms in Las Vegas, starts with angel food cake, Fruity Pebbles ice cream and strawberry sorbet to create a space creature engulfed in flashing lights and swirling mists. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Pools
The M, Park MGM and NoMad are just a few great pools in Las Vegas. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jose Andres explains Iberico pork
(Al Mancini/Las Vega Review-Journal)
Inside Life is Beautiful
Craig Asher Nyman explains how Life is Beautiful festival is booked and talks about this year's line-up. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America Pops Up In Vegas
Tattoo'd America, a new pop-up attraction on the Linq Promenade, had their grand opening Friday. The attraction is dedicate to the culture of tattoos. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Jose Andres gets key to the Strip
Chef Jose Andres was presented with a Key to the Las Vegas Strip and a proclamation declaring April 26 Jose Andres Day in Clark County by County Commissioner Tick Segerblom on Friday. The ceremony took place at his restaurant Bazaar Meat in the SLS Las Vegas. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sadelle’s in Las Vegas makes a grilled cheese with an inverted bagel
Michael Vargas, executive sous chef at Sadelle’s at Bellagio in Las Vegas, inverts an everything bagel and grills it with Swiss, cheddar and Muenster cheeses to make the Inverted Bagel Grilled Cheese. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures
Kassandra Lopez at Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures. (Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Prime rib is carved tableside at Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Las Vegas
Dave Simmons, executive chef of Lawry’s The Prime in Las Vegas, which plans special cuts for National Prime Rib Day, demonstrates the restaurant’s service from rolling tableside carving carts. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Making gluten-free pizza at Good Pie in Las Vegas
Good Pie owner/pizzaiola Vincent Rotolo makes his gluten-free pizza.
Rockabilly fans enjoy Las Vegas weather poolside
Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender runs Thursday, April 18th through Sunday, April 21st with a huge car show on Saturday featuring The Reverend Horton Heat, The Delta Bombers and The Coasters. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Brownie sundae at VegeNation in Las Vegas is completely vegan
Donald Lemperle, chef/owner of VegeNation in Las Vegas and nearby Henderson, NV, makes his sundae with ice cream made with coconut and almond milks, a brownie made with coconut flour and oil and organic sugar and cacao, and fresh fruit. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST