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Fresh fusion: Poki Poki Cevicheria blends Hawaiian, Latin American flavors

Poki Poki offers a build-your-own poke bowl; here, with shrimp, lime and chipotle mayonnaise. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

Poke, the simple dish of diced raw fish and rice so beloved in Hawaii, arrived in Southern California a decade ago and quickly spread across the country.

The number of Hawaiian restaurants, including those serving poke, doubled in the U.S. from 2014 to 2016, according to data from the social networking service Foursquare. By 2018, poke was on the menus of both Red Lobster and the Cheesecake Factory.

Even Albuquerque, roughly 800 miles from the nearest ocean, is awash in poke. You can get it at Asian restaurants, food trucks and Costco.

Not bad for a dish whose origins trace back to fisherman slicing bite-sized pieces off the day’s catch and eating them with sea salt, seaweed and nuts.

Restaurateur Robert Punya is Albuquerque’s de facto ambassador of poke. Punya, whose mother, Kathy, is the force behind the local Sushi King restaurants, opened his first Poki Poki Cevicheria in 2016 in the Brick Light District across from UNM. Besides taking liberties with the spelling of the dish, Punya brought Latin American flavors to the mix like Peruvian ceviche, plantain chips and chimichurri. He expanded in just a few years to three more locations and launched a spinoff called Poki Poblano.

Poki Poblano and the South Valley and the West Side outposts of Poki Poki Cevicheria have closed, but the original operation, now in Nob Hill, and the Northeast Heights spot remain.

The Heights location, a hulking industrial block clad in corrugated metal and brick, stands imposingly at the southwest corner of Wyoming and Comanche. Developers Coe & Peterson reconfigured the former office building into a so-called lifestyle center, where Poki Poki shares space with Sweet Cup Espresso and Boba Bar and Kamikaze Kitchen.

I have a soft spot in my heart for this place, as it’s where I spent many a Tuesday night for a weekly trivia event called Geeks Who Drink. I regularly marveled at how the bartenders and servers maintained a friendly, unflappable demeanor, even in the face of hordes of thirsty and hungry trivia buffs.

Geeks Who Drink is on ice for now, a victim of the pandemic, but the Heights Poki Poki is still plugging along. The scene on a recent Saturday night was encouraging. The patio that wraps around the corner was full, and a dozen people lined up at the counter to consider the dizzying number of choices on the wall-mounted menu.

Named from the Hawaiian word for “cut crosswise into pieces,” poke is sushi unbound, the raw fish and rice freed from its seaweed casing to mingle in a bowl with various fixings. While not as appealing to the eye as sushi, poke generally offers larger portions at a more affordable price. The textures, flavors and heat from the various sauces and sides bring life to the fish and rice.

Poki Poki’s menu offers a variety of bowls, including eight special bowls and a build-your-own option. You work your way down the line, starting with proteins such as ahi tuna, spicy tuna, salmon and shrimp, moving on to sauces and mix-ins such as edamame and imitation crab salad.

The Poke Bowl, one of the special bowls at Poki Poki, includes ahi tuna and white rice under a layer of dried seaweed strips. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The most basic special option is the Poke Bowl, ($9.73) with ahi tuna and white rice served under a nest of dried seaweed. The poke is done mainland style, meaning the fish is not marinated but served with sauces instead – in this case, a soy-based poke sauce and spicy mayonnaise. The bowl, anchored by a generous serving of fresh, deep purple ahi, was solid if unexciting.

For the build-your-own option ($9.73), we tried the gluten-free poke sauce with shrimp. This proved to be livelier than the poke bowl, with the pineapple salsa adding sweetness and heat, the yam chips bringing the crunch and the chipotle mayonnaise finishing it off with smoke and fire.

Poki Poki offers four tacos: fish, grilled chicken, carnitas and chimichurri steak. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Poki Poki also serves four tacos. Best among them was the fish taco ($3.50), a banana-crusted white fish called swai under a crown of pickled cabbage. Firm and mild-flavored, swai made a good backstop for the red pepper sauce and chipotle mayonnaise.

The rest of the tacos were solid if unspectacular. Asian buffalo sauce and pico de gallo bring a lot of heat to a Baja chicken taco ($3.50) made up of chunks of grilled chicken thighs. The carnitas taco ($3.50) pairs crispy chopped pork with sun-dried tomato aioli, while in the chimichurri steak taco ($3.50), small cubes of steak pick up tangy notes from the cilantro-lime crema and vinegary marinade.

Poki Poki offers boba teas and an assortment of desserts from Sweet Cup next door. With its intense mango and citrus flavor, the Mango Lime Time tea ($4.75) was just the thing to cut through the rich and salty poke bowls. If you’re considering blowing up your healthy meal with a dessert, then the churro ice cream sandwich ($5.00) is worth it. A churro doughnut sandwiched around a generous helping of vanilla ice cream, it delivers an irresistible combination of vanilla and cinnamon that’s plenty for two to share.

Poki Poki Cevicheria’s youthful staff and graffiti art décor give the place great energy, even in the midst of a pandemic, and make dining there a habit-forming experience.

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