Sushi bar in a bowl

Poke craze brings high-quality ingredients at fast food prices

Deconstructed sushi

Deconstructed sushi

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Lucky Poke
119 W. Second St.

More than anything else, the use of high-quality ingredients is the key to a good sushi restaurant. The better the seafood, however, the more expensive the experience, and anyone who has let the night get out of hand (“Another round of hamachi and sake!”) has experienced sushi-bar sticker shock.

A meal at a good poke bar, on the other hand, is much more affordable. And when it comes down to it, poke bars offer much the same ingredients sushi bars do—seafood, sticky rice, vegetables, sweet/salty/spicy sauces—just presented a little more crudely. Instead of expertly formed rolls or precision-sliced sashimi artfully arranged on a fancy plate, everything’s just chopped up and chucked into a bowl.

And these days, if you’re in the mood for a healthful meal of fresh seafood without breaking the bank, Chico—like most of the rest of the country—is ridiculous with poke bars to choose from. We now have four (plus at least one more on the way): Lucky Poke and LemonShark Poke downtown; Halo Hawaiian BBQ & Poke Bar in the East Avenue Safeway shopping center; and IFish Poke Bar & Thai Kitchen in the Nord Avenue Safeway shopping center.

This experiment was my first foray into poke locally, and I decided to test my theory of getting sushi/sashimi on the cheap at Lucky. If any of the Chico poke bars was going to approximate the sushi-bar experience, it would be the one that’s run by a guy who also runs a sushi bar. Owner/chef Jimmy Lee opened Lucky shortly after moving his Aonami Sustainable Sushi restaurant to Second Street downtown.

“Poke” in Hawaiian means to “cut crosswise,” and that’s the beginning of the Aloha State’s version of fast food—diced raw or seared tuna (usually) that’s tossed with soy sauce, sesame oil, green onions, dried seaweed, sea salt, etc. The poke craze on the mainland has taken the humble dish and added just about everything else to the bowl.

At Lucky, the basic setup is similar to the other bars in Chico. You have a series of items in different categories to choose from—including your proteins and various mixers, toppings and sauces—and you go down the line and they add it to your bowl. Start by choosing a size, from small ($8 for two scoops of poke) to XL, with each extra scoop adding $2 to the price, and then one of three bases: sushi rice, brown rice or mixed greens (or a blend of rice and greens).

I went three times and had the mixed greens twice and a blend of greens and sushi rice (amazing) once.

For pokes, the choices when I was there (the menu is seasonal) were ahi tuna, seared tombo tuna, seared steelhead, octopus, scallop, shrimp and (not on the menu) mussels. There are a couple of vegan options as well: organic tofu and roasted beet. I tried all but the tofu, beet and scallop, and other than the raw ahi (not my favorite texture in big cube form), all were excellent—not surprising considering the quality of Aonami’s sustainable sourcing. Especially interesting were the tender steelhead and my favorite, the perfectly cooked (not chewy at all!) octopus.

The magic of the dish happens when your chosen blend of the big flavors of the rest of the ingredients get added: the unlimited mixers (onions, green onions, pineapple chunks, jalepeno, cucumber) and sauces (Lucky Poke, sesame ponzu, ginger sesame, garlic chili oil), and the limited (three choices) extras (edamame, pickled onion, pickled jalepenos, crab salad, masago, wakame, avocado, spicy tuna).

My goal is to hit as many of the taste sensations as possible—at minimum sweet, salty and umami, plus a nice kick of heat. I tried nearly all of the choices over my three visits and the stars of my personal blends were definitely the pickled items and the excellent soy-and-pineapple-based Lucky Poke sauce.

There are also some sushi-bar staples at the finish—wasabi, ginger, spicy miso sauce (the bomb), seaweed flakes, etc.

I got the medium each time, and left very satisfied. And for $10, it’s an affordable way to get your sushi-bar fix.