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Poke-Poke’s Aloha poke celebrates the freshness of its ahi tuna. Photo by Velton Hayworth

Poke-Poke, 1515 W Magnolia Av, FW.  682-707-9529. 11am-9pm daily. All major credit cards accepted.

Poke-Poke, the barely six-week-old restaurant that specializes in sparklingly fresh-cut fish, is a compact bundle of unexpected surprises.

Measuring at a mere 600 square feet, the entire eatery is about the size of a Kardashian shoe closet. But with its white and robin’s egg blue walls –– where a stenciled tiki man and surfer hold court –– the place that formerly housed the hot dog shop Bentley’s is paradoxically uncramped. Located on West Magnolia Avenue on the bustling Near Southside, Poke-Poke effortlessly conjures up a low-fi surf-shop vibe, with an air of casual hipster nonchalance. 

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And why should I be staring so intently at this fast-casual’s napkin holders? Maybe because they act as surprising vehicles for a highly enlightening explanation of Poke-Poke’s “roots,” “food,” and “mission.” Now, I’d normally roll my eyes at any restaurant’s “mission” statement. Except upon closer inspection, I was persuaded by Poke-Poke’s sincere vow to “create and serve real poke accompanied by a …smile, in a low-key environment built for comfort, not speed.”

Well, to paraphrase Jerry MaGuire: You had me at “create and serve real poke” because that is exactly what Poke-Poke does and in a way that celebrates the purity of this Hawaiian original’s taste profile while eschewing any attempts to fussy it up with countless toppings or pre-packaged sauces. 

Poke-Poke is everything a franchise is not, starting with its highly personal ownership by the husband-and-wife team of Trisha Fortuna and Jason McVearry. The couple, who met in their Dallas high school more than two decades ago, launched Los Angeles’ first-ever made-to-order poke walk-up window from a 300-square-foot restaurant on Venice Beach in 2010. They eventually moved back to Texas, opening two more poke establishments in Austin before setting up their latest branch in Fort Worth last December.

The Fort Worth menu – composed of eight poke dishes, 16 different add-ins (from avocado and fresh jalapeño to pickled ginger and macadamia nuts), two salad options, and five dessert acai bowls – was blissfully easy to navigate.

I warmed up, literally, with the only cooked item, the restaurant’s canny tribute to Fort Worth, The Cowtown poke. Local steakhouses would be fortunate if they achieved the level of tenderness on this cut of meat (either rib-eye or sirloin). After a four-hour marinade in a mix of salt, pepper, honey, soy sauce, and sesame oil, the protein spends quality time in a cast-iron skillet before joining soy sauce, sesame oil, a confetti of sesame seeds, onions, cherry tomatoes, and bright watercress. The result: a steak salad for the ages. 

After my self-styled beef poke detour, I rebooted my meal with an Asian kale salad, which used a crisper drawer’s worth of kale, onions, carrots, and avocado. Tastes and textures  were ratcheted up thanks to crunchy macadamia nuts and the tart notes of a soy sauce-and-sesame oil vinaigrette. 

The Aloha poke highlighted the pristine quality of Poke-Poke’s frequent fish of choice, ahi tuna. This was Poke-Poke’s ode to the traditional iteration of its namesake offering, with its deep Hawaiian connection reflected in the use of the state’s native Aloha soy sauce. That sauce, mixing with touches of rice wine vinegar and sesame oil, along with the low-voltage heat from crushed red pepper, endowed this dish with an assertive simplicity. 

The only Poke-Poke dish sampled that did not celebrate the crystalline qualities of ahi tuna was the shiso salmon poke. Using gently cubed sashimi-grade salmon, this fish was treated to a bath of soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, and ginger, along with shiso leaf (ultra-flavorful mint) and the gentle fire from Thai sambal. Each bite left my lips tingling wonderfully.

Poke-Poke’s Thai Pad poke might convince tofu’s staunchest critics to change their tune. Perhaps it was the kitchen’s clear nod to the marvelous peanut-forward sauces of Asian satays. Then again, it might have been the plate’s medley of kale, carrots, and onions, all of which played so felicitously with the creamy cubes of tofu. But I must return to the multifaceted wonders of that peanut-driven sauce: a head-spinning combination of silken peanut butter, a drip of honey, the hum of sambal, the zip of rice wine vinegar, and the saline of soy sauce.

The acai bowl may be named after a Brazilian berry, but if I considered the lovely balance of tropical pineapple, mango, and banana, showered in coconut shavings and honey droplets and concealing an organic granola surprise on its ground floor, my mind inevitably traveled to Hawaii –– and it was a most pleasant sojourn.

As I was about to leave Poke-Poke, I noticed one of the blackboard signs above the bar informing me that, “In 2010, poke made to order was a necessary business pivot to avoid wasting fish …”

Nine years later, who would have predicted that Fort Worth’s restaurant universe would be the ultimate beneficiary of a single, shrewd business move?

Praise be the pivot. 

Poke-Poke

Aloha poke $9

Shiso salmon poke $12

Thai Pad poke $7

Cowtown poke $9

Asian kale salad $6

Acai bowl $8

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