For most New Orleanians, the thought of Lenten “sacrifice” conjures delicious images of boiled crawfish, fried oyster po-boys and jumbo lump crabmeat. The tenets of Catholicism aside, those of us interested in a tasty but healthy transition from the overindulgence of the Carnival season generally reach outside our local cuisine during the annual 40-day cleanse. With the opening of Poke Loa, brother-and-sister team Joe Reiss and Cecile Tanguis, along with their other business partners, hope that a taste of the Hawaiian islands offers locals a new option.
Poke—which in its purest form is a simple salad of raw, cubed fish—is most often found in New Orleans on sushi bar menus (RIP Kyoto). But the recent phenomenon of combining poke with a rice bowl has vaulted the Hawaiian staple into a national trend that’s spawned an ever-growing list of quick-service restaurants. At Poke Loa, the menu is structured in a Chipotle-esque step-by-step process where customers build their individualized bowls. Start with a base of white or brown rice or spring mix greens, choose from a number of protein options and continue on with sauces and toppings.
First timers would be wise to defer to one of the pre-designed signature bowls, especially the King Loa Bowl. Two scoops each of raw salmon and tuna plus one serving of crab meat provide a substantial protein base to which is added thinly sliced baby cucumbers, edamame, seaweed salad, avocado and a rainbow trio of tobiko. The resulting conglomerate is salty, sweet, slightly tart from the lemon-miso aioli dressing and crunchy from a sprinkle of sesame seeds that pop in each bite along with the fish eggs.
When creating your own bowl, a few guiding principles are helpful to keep in mind. Begin with a duo of rice and greens, which help reinforce the “salad” classification of the dish. Tuna, salmon and yellowtail have always appeared and tasted of pristine quality, but the crumbly tofu is less than appealing. Order the third scoop of fish—it’s worth the extra $2. For sauce, a combination of tamari or ponzu with your preferred aioli allows for adequate moisture. An unlimited number of toppings is included in the standard price, but exercise restraint because their individual characteristics become lost with too many. Balance textures and flavors—sweet mango with fresh jalapeño; seaweed salad with crunchy wonton strips.
Long lines have been the norm at Poke Loa during the opening weeks (especially during lunch), but the service is cheerful and brisk once you arrive at the ordering counter. The stark, modern interior offers plenty of natural light, but the best seats are at the outdoor tables along Louisiana Avenue. Close your eyes, and you may be able to feel the ocean breeze that inspired your meal.
3341 Magazine Street, 11a–9p daily, eatpokeloa.com, (504) 309-9993.