We have reached peak poke. The Hawaiian raw-fish salad (pronounced poh-keh) is popping up everywhere: on the cover of national food magazines, in sushi burritos at fast-casual spots, as an appetizer in fine-dining restaurants, and now, thankfully, in its purest form, at an honest-to-goodness poke shop that could easily exist on Oahu.
Manoa Poke Shop is named for the residential neighborhood of Honolulu where brothers Sam (28) and Josiah (24) Bonsey lived until they moved with their family to Massachusetts in middle school. The shop is inspired by the superettes, drive-ins, and community potlucks of Hawaii. Yes, I ripped that description from the website, but having briefly lived in Honolulu, I can vouch that Manoa Poke Shop truly embodies the aloha spirit.
What does that mean, exactly? That marketing manager Jem Wilner will jump from behind the counter, running past the colorful mural of a surfer riding a wave, to help schlep your stroller up the steps (and pet your dog) before asking if your child would like a rice bowl to snack on. That a staffer will invite you into the restaurant to watch the cooks set up to the musical stylings of ’90s band 311 if you accidentally arrive before they open. And that chef Armando Leonardi, formerly of West Side Lounge and born and raised in Guam, is serving up what locals would call “da kine grindz.” Simple, flavorful, fresh food.
You came for the poke, so start there. You can get a poke bowl with two ice cream scoops (just like they use in Hawaii) of poke, a base (white or brown rice, or baby kale flecked with quinoa and lightly dressed with a zippy vinaigrette), and one side dish for $11.95. A Big Bowl with three scoops is $15.95; a Lil’ Bowl with one scoop is $7.95.
Don’t skip the ahi or salmon shoyu — the most traditional poke — showcasing fresh fish in a savory sesame-soy marinade, mixed with sweet pickled onions and topped with crunchy macadamia nuts. One called Kelaguen is the catch of the day (sparkling sea bream on one visit) mixed with creamy coconut milk and bright citrus and topped with crispy rice. The Kilauea is for spicy tuna roll lovers — albacore mixed with kimchi aioli and furikake, the Japanese seasoning sprinkled over rice, which here brings a little extra heat and seaweed funk.
Seaweed reappears in one of the sides, a seaweed salad ($1 extra) that bears no resemblance to the tangle of cloying, neon green threads you often find at sushi restaurants. This is marinated Maine kelp (that stuff you try not to step on at the beach) tossed with rice noodles and shredded carrots. Other sides worth trying are the refreshing kimchi cucumbers and the papaya slaw, which goes particularly well with the super-crisp fried chicken ($11.95), a battered, boneless thigh that’s great on a Portuguese sweet roll or over rice. Kalua pig ($11.95) is another island favorite. Here they slow-cook heritage pork shoulder and add the requisite drops of liquid smoke.
Vegetarians can eat here too. There is a Soy Boy Poke — braised tofu in teriyaki marinade with edamame and avocado. The Square Meal ($10.95) gives you four sides with avocado and rice or quinoa-kale. Whether you get soy cubes or salmon, take advantage of the variety of crispy toppings, which add a craveable crunch to your bowl.
What sets Manoa apart from the other places jumping on the poke bandwagon? The Bonsey brothers say it’s their connection to Hawaii, but also the fish that ends up in your bowl — so don’t get attached to the ever-changing specials. “We want to tie our menu to what’s available locally and seasonally,” says Josiah. “During the week, we are making runs down to the fish pier to pick up different products, and then we come up with the menu based on what we can get at the docks.” He is especially excited about some hiramasa, farmed yellowtail, set to arrive from Maine. “We are trying to bring in the best possible fish and then serve it in a very straightforward and simple way,” he says.
If you want poke in a burrito, you’ll have to go somewhere else.
Manoa Poke Shop
300 Beacon St., Somerville, 617-945-1042, www.manoa.fish
All major credit cards. Not wheelchair accessible.
Prices Snacks $2.95-$5.50, poke bowls $7.95-$15.95, meat and side plates $5.95-$11.95, family combos $19.95-$49.95.
Hours Tue-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sun 5-11 p.m. (Closed Mon)
What to order Ahi shoyu, salmon shoyu, Kilauea, Kelaguen, fried chicken
Catherine Smart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.