Why are Hawaiian poke bowls such a hit in Atlanta?

National chain Poke Bar has five metro Atlanta locations and plans to open another eight in the area. CONTRIBUTED BY POKE BAR

National chain Poke Bar has five metro Atlanta locations and plans to open another eight in the area. CONTRIBUTED BY POKE BAR

The Hawaiian dish known as poke is one born from proximity to Pacific waters, where abundant fish are fresh, clean and perfect for eating raw. As the chef Sam Choy told Honolulu Magazine several years ago, families like his were once fond of making poke almost entirely from foraged, seaside ingredients: seaweed from a river mouth, nuts from the Kukui tree, salt dried from seawater, and cubed, raw fish, plucked from the ocean.

Today, that simple dish is inspiration for hundreds of newish restaurants across the country, including well over a dozen in metro Atlanta. The latest include Poke City (11720 Medlock Bridge Road, Johns Creek. 770-817-0526; 931 Monroe Drive, Atlanta. 404-875-0800, gopokecity.com), where a bowl of lean, clean tuna, edamame, seaweed salad, and brown rice topped with Hawaiian sea salt and furikake is a healthy-feeling pleasure. Things get a little fancier at Bowl Lab (3621 Vinings Slope, Atlanta. 770-371-2695, atlbowllab.com), where the signature options include the Hotlanta bowl, with spicy tuna, spicy crab, kale, jalapeno, sweet corn, pickled ginger, wasabi and several other ingredients. The national chain Poke Bar already has five locations in the area, including the most recent in Edgewood (1220 Caroline St., Atlanta. 404-996-6684, ilovepokebar.com); eight more are coming.

Poke Bar is a California-based chain that’s growing rapidly in the Atlanta area. CONTRIBUTED BY WYATT WILLIAMS

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Why is this trend exploding here? The key draw for diners seems to be versatility. Whether you add avocado or pickled cucumbers when you order, the pleasure of eating lightly seasoned, lean raw fish in a casually composed bowl is mostly inarguable.

That doesn’t have much to do with Atlanta, of course. You won’t find any of these poke shops promising to serve Georgia fish and seafood. There are good reasons we don’t have stories of Appalachian families sitting down to creek-side meals of raw trout bowls. This is a dish ideal for Pacific tuna.

Where exactly is all this cheap, fresh raw fish coming from? I reached out to about a half-dozen poke restaurants with locations in the Atlanta area, both locally owned upstarts and nationwide franchised chains. By the deadline for this story, none had responded to questions about sourcing.

Their reluctance doesn’t really surprise me. The trendiness of poke bowls depends largely on competitive costs, that it costs about as much as a bowl from Chipotle, rather than, say, a chirashi don bowl from the fancy sushi joint down the street that flies in its fish from Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. To make that price work, you can’t be too picky about the source.

Prepare to experience something new when visiting Gunshow, located in Glenwood Park. Chef-owner Kevin Gilllespie shares the run down on the busy kitchen ran by executive chef Joey Ward, the ever-changing menu and the themed nights at this distinctly Atlanta restaurant. Video by Ryon Horne / RHORNE@AJC.COM

We’re lucky that Atlanta has a thriving dining scene that bustles with choices and continues to attract new concepts. But if you, like me, care about sourcing, ask where the fish comes from. If they can’t tell you, there are plenty of restaurants that will. 

Check out what the AJC Fall Dining Guide 2017 has to offer: