Poké is having a big moment in Los Angeles. And Sweetfin Poké, the newest in the, er, school of Hawaiian restaurants that pair fresh fish and rice with shoyu sauce in a bowl, is rebranding the dish from its former associations as a takeout item—buh-bye creepy Styrofoam box; hello, lines out the door—and making it completely customizable and creative.
It’s clear that Angelenos are obsessed. Only open since April 13, the Santa Monica hotspot already has lines around the block throughout the day and 33 seats that are always full. The sustainable “pole-to-bowl” menu is more reminiscent of a smoothie bar than a lunch spot, allowing you to combine ridiculously clean and savory ingredients for amazing, different outcomes every time.
Sweetfin’s owners (and once USC fraternity brothers), Seth Cohen, 27, and Brett Nestadt, 26, think it’s exactly the way that Angelenos want to eat right now: “The thing I love about the poké concept is that it’s healthy and you can use the fish as a vessel to create any kind of flavor experience you want,” said Cohen in his Cali prep Sweetfin tee.
Cohen thinks the current poké boom is a continuation of the sushi trend. It has everything to do with it being a staple in the Angeleno diet, but “eating poke is a more convenient, cost effective, and customizable way,” he reasons.
Traditionally poké is a simple rice base topped with cubed fish, shoyu sauce, and veggie garnishes, but Sweetfin has much more in mind.
You can order signature bowls: Spicy Tuna, Spicy Yuzu Salmon, and Mango Albacore are already customer favorites. I can vouch that the Mango Albacore with sweet mango, crunchy macadamia nuts, and zingy ginger is like a Kauai surfing vacation in a bowl.
Or create one: Just BYOB (Build Your Own Bowl) with their Top It, Sauce It, Base It system. Four different kinds of fish (or tofu and veggies, if you’re going poké vegetarian) are the vehicle for homemade sauces like creamy togarashi (spicy mayo) or to-die-for toppings like wasabi toasted coconut. (Lest all of this DIY scare you off, don’t worry, it’s chicer than your froyo place.)
Cohen believes Sweefin is the only “chef driven” poké concept that allows you to have the dish your way.
Behind it all is Chef Dakota Weiss, a big reason why Sweetfin is blowing up. The Top Chef contestant is the “mastermind” behind Sweetfin’s flavors and nutrition, Cohen says. Her rule of thumb? Everything must be homemade, down to the sauces and fruit-infused teas, which is where a lot of chefs can cut corners (and add unnecessary ingredients, sugar, and calories).
The menu is also entirely gluten- and dairy-free. Except for the matcha popcorn.
But if you can have dairy, get it. Coated in white chocolate with a hint of coconut, customers seated near me who were inhaling it, leaned over and called it their crack.
Want a natural vitamin B boost? Try the bamboo rice base. Or sub out the rice for the kelp noodles or kale and the dish becomes nutrient dense and low carb.
“We wanted to really create a brand and lifestyle around the food,” Cohen said, while we sat snacking after the lunch rush. The space has refined beach vibe, and emanates coastal relaxation.
“We’re pushing the envelope and doing something completely different,” Cohen says. Looks like Angelenos are in hook, line, and sinker. —Kara Griffin
Sweetfin Poke, 829 Broadway, Santa Monica, 90401, (310) 395-1097, www.sweetfin.com
(Photos: Sweetfin Poke)