How the Hawaiian poke bowl became the world’s new fast food

Sons of Thunder wasn’t planning on serving poke.

The small restaurant in New York was supposed to be a burger and sandwich joint. But when the utilities company took forever to turn the gas on, Sons of Thunder decided: When life gives you a cold stove, you make poke.

“We almost closed because no one knew what poke was,” says James Kim, a partner in Sons of Thunder.

What a difference a New York Times article makes. Four months after Sons of Thunder opened, Ligaya Mishan, a Times restaurant critic originally from Honolulu, named the spot as the best place for poke in Manhattan. Kim went from correcting people’s pronunciation (it’s poh-kay) and explaining what it was (most commonly, chopped raw fish seasoned with shoyu and sesame oil) to serving more than 600 poke fans a day. Sons of Thunder’s blue-and-white logo is still a burger, but Kim has long given up on that idea. As much as he tries to push other items, the people just want poke.

Since Sons of Thunder first opened, at least half-a-dozen new poke spots have sprung up in New York. But New York isn’t the only city now enamored with poke. It’s exploding in popularity around the world, proliferating in cities from Los Angeles to London to Sydney. Poke puns abound in Canada, where a shop near Toronto is named Pokeh, and poke is even trés chic in Paris. So how did Hawaii’s most popular pupu (appetizer) suddenly become one of the biggest food trends of the year?

Poke has always existed where there are pockets of homesick Hawaii transplants. Take Takahashi Market in San Mateo, California. Originally a Japanese general store, it started catering to Hawaii transplants who came to work on the San Francisco airport in the late ’50s. Since then, Takahashi Market has sold Hawaii comfort foods such as poi, laulau, Zippy’s chili and poke, made with limu (seaweed) brought in from the Islands.

But this new wave of poke on the mainland is something different. Sons of Thunder may have accidentally tapped into the zeitgeist, but for the poke chains really driving the trend, it was conscious capitalization from the start.

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