Lately, it seems, poke places are popping up like pumpkin lattes. But amid all the Hawaiian fanfare, it’s only fair to give props to the guy who started the trend in Seattle—Hawaiian chef Sam Choy and his popular food truck Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max. Now Choy has opened a brick-and-mortar spot (5300 Rainier Ave. S.), where he serves his popular poke salads and rice bowls, as well as other favorites like Spam musubi and loco moco.
The space itself strikes a great balance of style and convenience. While you order at the counter, fast-food style, the seating area is a lovely, restrained mix of modern industrial design—with geometric white planters filled with tropical greenery on the white and light-gray wood walls—offset by the pop of Hawaiian wood totems. The tables too, a large communal one in the center flanked by about 10 three-tops, sport pots overflowing with succulents. While the food is easy to take to go, the calming, lovely decor encourages you to stay.
If you’ve eaten at the truck, this review won’t tell you much you don’t already know. But if you’ve never tried it, or poke for that matter, here’s the scoop: Poke is raw fish, cubed (salmon and tuna are the options here), marinated in sauce (more on that in a moment), and served either over rice or salad.
While a sesame oil-soy sauce, shoyu, is the traditional marinade, you can also try a spicy-mayo-based version, or one made of tamari, onions, and red pepper flakes. I opted for the latter, but found it too sweet for my taste; I’ll stick with the shoyu next time. The fish itself, while particularly fresh-tasting, unfortunately, was nearly ice-cold. While we want our raw fish properly refrigerated, items like sushi, tartare, and poke really taste best when they’re just a tad cooler than room temperature. Otherwise, the flavor just doesn’t come through. The salad of mixed greens it’s served on is huge, the pieces of poke generous. You can choose two salad toppings for free, and I went for imitation crab (a traditional one) and mango (less common). It’s solid, but doesn’t hold a candle to the poke salad at Wallingford’s 45th Stop n Shop & Poke Bar, where the fish is exquisitely flavorful and the salad a lesson in perfect composition.
The Aloha Chicken, however, is addictively delicious—nuggets deep-fried to a dark golden hue, glazed in a garlic sauce (you can also get a katsu, macadamia-nut, or yakitori sauce), next to two scoops of a rice; we opted for the brown-and-white blend. The famous “Reconstructed Spam Musubi” comes out in a giant log that looks like a sushi roll on steroids, layered expertly with white rice, furikake (a Japanese seasoning made of dried ground fish, seaweed, sesame seeds, sugar, and salt), a thick slice of Spam, and a wedge of egg frittata, painted with a sweet eel sauce and aioli and sprinkled with green onions and sesame seeds. The dish has never been a favorite of mine; it’s a bit too sweet for my palate. However, the Spam was actually tasty, and this seems like as good an iteration as any.
What I loved the most, though, was the Shrimp Boat Sandwich, which reminds me a bit of a Vietnamese banh mi due to the baguette, pickled veggies, and cilantro. In this version, however, rather than pork, the filling is sweet, plump panko-breaded popcorn shrimp, along with coleslaw, house-pickled cucumbers, and a spicy aioli. The sandwich is huge, but I nearly ate it all at one sitting. There’s so much more to try, but portions are gigantic, so go with a lot of people or plan to make multiple visits. You can also pop in for items to go—like poke by the pound, seaweed salad, and those Hood Famous Bakeshop little cakes also sold at Uwajimaya, including a Filipino ube-flavored one and a white-chocolate guava cheesecake.
Though Poke to the Max was nearly empty on a Friday night, rumor has it that it’s packed during lunch hours, so plan your visits accordingly—maybe even call ahead to get the scoop before you head over, particularly if you don’t live nearby. And while the truck is still in commission serving patrons all over the city, it’s nice to know that there’s one spot that never moves.