I’ve got a love/hate relationship with poke. The love is based on trips to Hawaii, where a simple poke salad of raw fish, sliced onions, sesame oil, and maybe some chili spice turns out to be the best thing I’ve ever eaten, even though it costs only a few bucks and was made on a liquor store counter top rather than sterile restaurant kitchen. The hate comes from the rapid proliferation of fast casual poke bowl shops, which have turned the concept into a “customer knows best” smorgasbord, combining a mixed bag of budget sashimi and endless add-ons ranging from avocado and cucumber to fish roe and flaming hot Cheeto dust.
1980 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Cheeto dust aside, some of these spots furnish a decent, somewhat healthy-appearing meal. But then there’s the pesky knowledge that there’s a finite number of fish in the sea, and that global appetite for those yielding sashimi grade fish far outweighs what the oceans can sustain. The offense, then, is that these dozens of poke-in-name restaurants saturating our cities waste huge amounts of raw fish on mediocrity. And with rare exception, that’s what you get from a fast casual poke bowl these days: mediocrity, at best. In most cases, it’s just a soul-less co-opting of a Hawaiian delight. Fast, cheap, and forgettable. Raw fish deserves better.
However, once fish is removed from the equation, the poke bowl concept becomes more satisfying. Or so I learned when vegan restaurant Café Gratitude unveiled its new summer menu, featuring a poke dish served over black rice, with edamame, pickled carrot, watermelon radish, avocado, and sesame seeds. Without any fish, of course, all of the above just sounds like a veggie rice bowl.
It emulates poke thanks to an unlikely source: watermelon. I’ve seen watermelon do a rare steak imitation, and while impressed by the grilled meat look of it, it still ultimately tasted like melon. I suspected Gratitude would offer something similar: a dish that looks like a poke bowl, but really tastes more like a fruit salad.
While we’re not going to sit here and pretend that the seedless, marinated watermelon in this bowl was magically transformed into ahi tuna, I will contend the compressed fruit does a fair enough sashimi routine to make the dish work. It remains somewhat crisp in a way that unfrozen fish is not, but the sweetness of the melon has been diminished with its savory soak, and the inclusion of seaweed in the mix adds an ocean element. That said, the biggest surprise here may be the big dollop of vegan sriracha mayo, so rich and creamy that even carnivores who disavow mayonnaise for its fatty viscosity might be averse to this eggless rendition.
Mixed together, the watermelon poke eats just like those fast casual poke bowls I so freely criticize, but better. Better because I know what’s not in it, and better because the $16.50 meal relies on fresh, flavorful ingredients, composed to complement one another rather than piled alongside cheap fish at whatever whim my appetite demands. Watermelon won’t change anyone’s sushi habits, but if you like poke bowls because it feels healthy, try some melon over ahi.