Poki Poke, a new-ish restaurant in Phnom Penh, explains itself by appending “a sushi restaurant” to its name, but that’s just to try and make the unfamiliar a little less frightening to Cambodia denizens. Before I was taken to Poki Poke, I had never eaten poke before, probably because I’ve never been to Hawaii, where the dish originates from. Poke is a dish of raw fish, soy sauce, seaweed, and chili, as well as various other optional toppings. Poki Poke serves poke bowls, poke over rice, which they bill as “sushi in a bowl.” It’s similar to Japanese chirashi, except it’s a little more free-wheeling and a lot less expensive.
Less expensive probably doesn’t give Poki Poke enough credit, it’s actually ridiculously cheap. A poke bowl at Poki Poke costs just $2.50, or $3.50 for a large. Considering what you get — salmon or tuna sashimi — one has to wonder how they are managing to turn a profit. Poki Poke serves nothing but poke bowls, and each one is made to order.
At the poke bar there are a range of mysterious and complicated options. After choosing white rice or brown rice, you are confronted with a bevy of choices that must be made quickly. First, a protein, salmon or tuna sashimi, mackerel, chicken, or shrimp — two small scoops for a regular bowl or three for a large bowl. The next stage is where it gets confusing.
You can have an unlimited number of garnishes that include crabmeat, avocado, green onion, potato salad, cucumber, masago egg, and orange tobiko roe. Then onto choosing a sauce, usually original but you can optionally add spicy oil, spicy mayo sauce, and honey mayo (?) sauce. Finally, the bowl is topped with optional seaweed, ginger, and wasabi.
Apparently the point of a poke bowl is to jumble a bunch of delicious ingredients in a bowl and give them a stir, so it looks sort of disgusting but tastes delicious. I have mixed feelings about the concept. On one hand, it feels wrong to pollute sashimi-grade (I hope) raw fish with mayonnaise and potato salad. On the other hand, who am I to stand in the way of culinary progress?
Despite the fact that they are open late, Poki Poke feels like a lunch place. Which makes the vast selection of beers all the more confusing. They’ve got local favorites as well as less popular options (Phnom Penh beer, I’m talking about you), as well as a range of imported Belgian beers. They’ve also recently started serving Japanese breakfast sets from 7 to 11 a.m., with grilled salmon, mackerel, or natto and egg served with rice, miso soup, pickles, and seaweed for just $4. In the evenings, they offer delivery until 8 p.m. for a small surcharge.
On my first visit to Poki Poke soon after they opened last October, they were serving everything in disposable plastic dishes, even if you ate there. As the global citizen that I am, I was irritated by the wastefulness of this, and was pleased to see that they’ve now upgraded to bamboo bowls and trays for those who are eating in, complete with ichthys-emblazoned chopsticks. The entire operation has gotten much smoother and more pleasant since my last visit as well, but it’s still a steal at $3.50 for a large bowl.
Poki Poke Sushi Restaurant
Open daily, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
71 Sothearos Blvd, Tonle Bassac, Phnom Penh
T: 017 570 923