Poke bowls at Santa Monica hotspot Sweetfin. (Photo: Gillie Houston for Yahoo Food)
Dakota Weiss knows fish. There’s just one problem: She can’t really eat it. The former “Top Chef” contestant’s fast-casual Southern California poke restaurant, Sweetfin, is one of the hottest lunch spots in Santa Monica right now, with lines of eager customers lined around the blocks to get their fix of sweet, fatty tuna and lush salmon sliced and served with the sauces and seasonings of their choosing. Although Weiss developed a sudden and mysterious fish allergy at 28 years old, her fixation with the fresh and healthy protein never waned.
Growing up in Southern California, Weiss was raised by a mother who emphasized healthy eating: “Everything we ate was organic — it came out of her garden or a farmers market,” she says. Dessert took the form of dates and dried fruit, and finding fresh, natural ingredients became part of her DNA. On trips to nearby Hawaii when she was younger, Weiss recalls eating poke for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, not able to get enough of the stuff. Later, as a chef in Marina del Rey over a decade ago, Weiss began to experiment more with Asian-influenced flavors, helping to create poke dishes as appetizers and playing around with vegetarian and vegan alternatives to the fishy food.
She worked at a variety of esteemed restaurants around the United States, never considering that her love for the humble fish bowl could spark a booming business. “I had poke on a few of my menus as a special, but never in a million years did I think a poke restaurant would be a thing,” Weiss says. However, at the encouragement of her business partner, Alan Nathan, the chef set out to something she had only dreamed of: a spot that offered fresh, unique takes on the traditional Hawaiian dish with plenty of vegetarian options for those like Weiss who have an allergy to finned food.
When Sweetfin opened its doors in April of 2015, it was an instant hit, with fish fans flooding the business to get fulfill their BYOB (build your own bowl) poke cravings. Propelled by the booming poke trend sweeping the nation — and particularly the West Coast — Weiss’s passion project has taken off, and the Sweetfin family is set to grow by 5+ locations in 2016 alone.
Soon, many more fans will be able get a taste of Weiss’s popular creations, including a spicy tuna bowl with creamy, chili pepper-spiced mayonnaise and albacore tuna bowls with the sweetness of mangos and the crunch of macadamia nuts. To find out how to make your own killer poke bowl, check out Chef Weiss’s poke tips and tricks and below.
When it comes to serving raw fish, it’s all about quality. “You can’t fake good quality. When you’re using it in a raw platform there’s no hiding. You can tell by the color, the touch of it, the feel in your mouth, and the smell,” Weiss says. At Sweetfin, their focus is on finding the highest-quality sushi-grade fish possible, a task that takes time and patience. Weiss and her team tried the tuna of 30 different companies before settling on International Marine Products as their go-to source. Another key? “Get your fish fresh every single day,” Weiss says. No frozen fish sticks allowed.
Beyond the fish, poke is all about the sauce. “At Sweetfin, we’re not trying to make traditional Hawaiian poke; we’re trying to make it our own with a heavy Californian influence,” Weiss says. To achieve this, the chef uses a combination of Japanese and Korean flavors in her sauces. To appease the large gluten-free population in Southern California, Sweetfin uses gluten-free soy sauce in all the bases. Weiss also likes to bring some heat to her made-from-scratch ponzu sauces by adding a hit of spice: “I have a spicy palette, so I like to load my poke with serranos and Sriracha.”
While in traditional Hawaiian poke, fish is served seasoned on its own, the modern Californian version uses a base in order to create a more filling, well-rounded meal. At Sweetfin, customers can pick between three bases: steamed bamboo rice, kelp noodle salad with cucumber slaw, or a kale citrus salad. “I like my poke over rice, mixed all together, which makes it a really hearty bowl,” Weiss says. However, customers who are more calorie-conscious can opt for the green options: “It’s not quite as hearty but adds a whole other level of flavor to the bowl with a soy vinaigrette and fresh orange.”
The word poke is a Hawaiian verb meaning “to slice or cut,” and every poke bowl features cubes of your protein of choice. Weiss relies on standard ¾-inch cubes for that perfect bite, though you can always adjust to your preferences. As for choosing your fish or vegetarian option, the possibilities are endless. At Sweetfin, options include tuna, salmon, albacore, snapper, tofu, and fresh chopped vegetables.
Traditional poke in its simplest form calls for sesame oil, soy sauce, Himalayan pink sea salt, onion, and red chili. However, at Sweetfin toppings abound, with herbs, spices, fruits, and veggies available to add a unique and personalized flavor to your poke. Weiss loves adding a little fish sauce and fresh lemon and lime juice to her creations to brighten up the flavors. Beyond that, spices like charred habanero and shiso can add another layer of taste, as well as additions such as like chili marinated oranges, Napa cabbage, and shaved red onion.
To balance out the creamy texture of the fish, bring in something crunchy for that perfect mix. Bean sprouts, crispy garlic, crispy onions, wasabi peas, and wasabi-toasted coconut are the ingredients Weiss relies upon to bring that special textural twist to her bowls.
To get some extra help for your poke bowl building, check out this awesome Hawaiian Tuna Poke recipe from “Lucky Rice” here.