1780 S. Victoria Ave., Ventura
By now you’ve surely heard of the poke craze gripping the nation. Everyone is scouring the county, traveling from far and away places, lining up and hoping to “eat ’em all” as the long sought-after fish salad bowl finally hits Ventura. Oh, I’m sorry, what poke did you think we were referring to?
Poke Land, in the bustling Montalvo Square shopping center off Victoria Road sandwiched between Q&Q Hawaiian Barbecue and Jimmy John’s, is Ventura’s latest edition in trendsetting fast-casual restaurants. You might not find a rare Pokémon at the counter, but what you will find are eight different fish choices, just as many toppings and four sauces and sides to go on top of your white or brown rice, tortilla chips or salad. It’s the Chipotle of the sushi world, where every flavorful decision is yours to make.
Poke (pronounced po-kay) comes from the faraway shores of Hawaii and is as ubiquitous in the islands as are burritos in SoCal. From the simplest, traditional iteration featuring marinated tuna or octopus, to the gourmet “hipster”-ized phenomenon sweeping Los Angeles and the rest of the state, which utilizes all manner of raw fish and crustaceans, every poke bar puts its own spin on the simple bowl.
At Poke Land, selections are made via a walk-up counter where servers toss choices into a small ($8.75) or large ($10.75) mixing bowl, the former providing three scoops of fish, the latter, five. The same issue that I share with eating at sushi bars I share with poke bowls: My eyes believe I can devour many, many more rolls than I ever possibly could. On my initial visit, I went for the large bowl and left as plump as a Snorlax (a Pokemon with an eating disorder).
All of the various fish were vibrant, with the tuna a bright pink tantalizing choice. I chose the tuna, spicy tuna, salmon, marinated octopus and yellowtail to go on top of a bed of steamed white rice and tortilla chips. What’s wrong with sushi nachos? To top it all off, I ran the gamut on toppings, with masago (fish eggs), green onion, seaweed salad and edamame.
If the contents of my bowl sound a lot like the innards of a sushi roll to you as a sushi aficionado, well, poke bowls are simply undignified sushi rolls. The fish selection goes into a bowl with a few extras of your choosing, including red onions, pineapple and cucumber (avocado or faux crab meat is $1 extra for an extra scoop) and is tossed with a variety of sauces, including a spicy “house sauce” or a wasabi or spicy mayo. Sauce specials vary by the day, with a jalapeño-infused ponzu offered on a hand-written note.
No need to roll it up and serve it on a platter with a side of ginger (though ginger is served on the side); poke would bring tears to the eyes of the star of Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
At the end of the line, the bowl resembles something like the staff meal at a sushi joint. Sprinkle some of the Japanese seasoning furikake on top and boom goes the dynamite, lunch is served.
In the cooler next to checkout is the Japanese soda Ramune, the only beverage as fun to open as it is to drink. Poke Land offers the soda in several flavors, including grape, lemon-lime and melon. To open, press your palm down on the attached plastic nub to force a marble down into the soda with a distinct pop. Ramune pairs well with a bowl of marinated fish or an anime marathon.
There’s a lot going on in the poke bowl, so you might as well dive in, where individual flavors butt against each other for dominance, narrowly avoiding being “too much.” Sweet pineapple mingles with spicy wasabi-coated tuna; sushi-grade salmon rides a tortilla chip topped with savory seaweed salad; and the small, neon-orange roe (fish eggs) known as masago burst with flavor. In the famous words of Ken Griffey Jr., “It’s like there’s a party in my mouth and everybody’s invited!”
In its own way, a bowl of poke is very pretty, like staring into the mess of the universe on a starry night. It’s workingman’s food, if the working class ate raw fish for lunch. Could it replace the classic ham sandwich at the lunch counter? Possibly! Poke Land is very popular, and for good reason: It’s downright delicious. On my second visit, the word had gotten around. Owners of the county’s famous Scratch Food Truck were casually chomping away next to a Ventura city councilmember, and the line stretched halfway through the dining room to the door.
Leave your sushi-joint tradition at home and embrace the world of Poke Land, the fish salad bar the city never knew it wanted.