Richard Eber, Taste and Tell

Local restaurants capitalize on the poke revolution

Local restaurants capitalize on the poke revolution
The staff lets customers create their own poke bowls at Fresh Box in Concord.

Richard Eber, Taste and TellCONTRA COSTA COUNTY, CA (Sept. 14, 2021) — With the growing popularity of sushi and sashimi in the region, the demand for quality raw fish increases each year. Poke eateries are one segment of this expanding market.

This cuisine, which originated in Hawaii, has been well-received on the Mainland. Poke (pronounced poh-kay) has gained mass appeal, especially among young people.

One such place is Fresh Box at 1645 Willow Pass in Concord. Tucked away in the far corner of Park and Shop, it has remained busy even during the COVOD-19 pandemic.

“Word of mouth and exposure on the Internet have greatly contributed to our success,” says owner Samson Cheung, an Ygnacio Valley High alum.

Choose your ingredients

Fresh Box owner Ygnacio Valley  High alum Samson Cheung  with one of his creations.

As with many poke establishments, patrons select the ingredients that go into their bowls. Things start with a base of rice, mixed greens or chips. Then come the proteins, which include sushi-quality albacore, yellowtail and/or spicy tuna. Fresh Box offers octopus, salmon, crab, shrimp and scallops to round out their seafood selections.

Added to the proteins are some 21 extras, with veggies such as corn, edamame, cucumber and nori (seaweed, white onion and ginger).

What makes all these diverse flavors work is the wide variety of homemade sauces. Among the most popular are ponzu (soy sauce, citrus, mirin, bonito flakes and kelp), a garlic offering, spicy poke and a unagi mixture.

The selection process, similar to at MOD and Blaze Pizza, gives consumers what they want rather than being limited to specific items on a menu.

“Poke offers patrons a quick, tasty and less expensive alternative to traditional Japanese sushi bars,” says Cheung.

As a bonus, he added: “Those on diets can enjoy a satisfying low-calorie meal that fills one up.”

The demographics of poke bars differ from traditional Japanese and other Asian restaurants. “Our crowd tends to be in the 25 to 35 range, although older folks are being added to our customer base,” says Nate Olaes, owner of Oke Poke on 1529 Locust in Walnut Creek.

Pandemic business

Owner Nate Olaes displays one of the poke bowls at Oke Poke in Walnut Creek.

Olaes says business has more than doubled during COVID, with delivery orders now making up 45 percent. Judging from the seven servers behind the counters on a Tuesday evening when I was at Oke Poke, they are one busy place.

Like at Fresh Box, Olaes recommends that customers mix the large variety of house-made dressings. I found this to be good advice as I consumed a bowl featuring spicy hamachi tuna, blanched octopus and various add-ons. It was delicious and made me momentarily forget my addiction to Japanese sushi bars.

Another popular poke locale is Pokeatery at 1345 Newell Ave. Suite B, adjacent to Whole Foods in Walnut Creek. It has a similar menu to other poke restaurants in the area but with a definite Hawaiian twist. One of their best creations is Limu Poke, which features yellowfin tuna, onion, seaweed and spices.

Pokeatery not only imports tuna from the islands, but also ‘Ulu chips, nori and other food item.

The success of poke eateries has resulted in traditional Japanese restaurants offering their own versions. I recently sampled poke bowls at Sushi Momoyama on Monument Boulevard in Concord and at Kobe Japan on Oak Park Boulevard in Pleasant Hill.

Both were excellent and utilized high-quality fish, though they lacked some of the ingredients found at poke restaurants.

It is obvious that the California-style treat from Hawaii is here to stay. Although keeping a continuous supply of raw ingredients on hand is no easy task, fresh and healthy semi fast food is a popular formula for success in today’s health-conscience world.

Rich Eber
Rich Eber

Rich Eber is a local journalist and long time resident of Concord.  His diverse topics covered go from politics to gourmet food.  He can be reached at