With memories of Kung Pao Calamari still dancing in my head, I next poked my head into the brand new Poke Tiki shop in the H.I.P. District. Perfectly situated in the old Project Juice location, it’s just south of Gina’s Pizza and Bonzai Bowl.
Three weeks ago, Poke Tiki just sort of suddenly showed up.
“It was crazy how fast it all came together,” said GM and family owner Elliot Cho. “We have a regular client in our San Clemente location who is a Laguna local and he told us about this space. It was already pretty much set up for us when we walked in the door.”
Elliot’s father, Jun, dreamed up the poke concept a few years ago. “He was just looking at trends and he said it was time for a build-your-own-poke-bowl place. So, my Mom, Christine, got involved and we started one. It turns out my Dad was right.”
The Cho family owns the original location in San Clemente and is 100% owner of the new Laguna Beach location. They’ve recently begun franchising with at least 5-10 other Poke Tiki shops popping up across the country.
There is no better description than “build your own” and, frankly, I love counter service restaurants (like downtown’s Slice Pizza) who get so darned creative. Poke Tiki ranks with some of the most creative I’ve witnessed.
On the one side, you have nine different types of super-fresh raw fish, shrimp and albacore crab salad (so good). The family receives two deliveries weekly, with tuna and albacore being wild-caught and the salmon being farmed.
Choose your base of rice, salad or chips. Then, depending on your order size, choose between one and three large scoops of your fish choice.
Toppings are next, and this is better than any Baskin Robbins I’ve seen. Aside from the small added cost
for avocado, more than 15 ingredients are included in the price. Scan through seaweed salad, cucumbers, edamame, cilantro, sweet corn, fresh ginger, onions, wasabi and more. Consider a dash of sesame seeds before moving on to the five signature sauces.
I choose spicy tuna and the crab salad atop the salad base. They pile on my requested toppings and Shannon suggests the spicy mayo. (Were I not just freed from a 5-day fast, I probably would have opted for their signature sauce or the mild/medium/hot levels of Volcano sauce they serve.)
My BFF, Lisa, choose brown rice with spicy tuna and salmon with toppings of crab, green onions and seaweed noodles.
Elliot says his mother likes to think of herself as a barista so, aside from a variety of bottled drinks, the team offers specialty coffee drinks and hand-made sparkling sodas. Lisa and I both opt for the sparkling ginger-aid and, goodness, it was worth the tiny wait.
As fellow Virgos, Lisa and I might be loosely termed “germaphobes.” In fact, yet another fellow Virgo who claims to be “pristine” – my mixologist buddy Sean Melia – was texting me photos of his Poke Tiki lunch this weekend.
I’ve never tried a counter-service ahi bowl place, but I’m glad I waited for this one. The place is sparkling clean, the staff is meticulous, and giant plexiglass separates you from the food options.
The meal, however, is a greater testament to this family’s care and concern; this is truly some of the freshest sushi-grade fish I’ve tasted. It’s a small wonder that my BFF now regularly trots down from her Laguna Beach Books store for a quick, healthy lunch break. Now, I’m quite sure I’ll be joining her for lunch more often.
Poke Tiki is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day for dining and delivery.