A hip new poke shop awaits your discovery in the back of a convenience store
By Jessica Koslow
Playa del Rey feels like a charming little beach town tucked away from the rest of Los Angeles, so perhaps it’s fitting that the chefs behind a brand-new poke shop on Culver Boulevard would hide it in the back of a neighborhood convenience store.
TikiFish started serving traditional Hawaiian-style poke — or, as Chef Lionel Killens calls it, “sushi in a bowl” — just a few weeks ago in Gordon’s Market, where it shares the back wall with ASAP Phorage. While ASAP advertises its Asian sandwiches and pho with a stand-up sign outside Gordon’s, TikiFish is still without one.
For now, they’re focusing on the food.
“We pride ourselves on quality. We get our fish from the Fiji Islands and the Maldives, our salmon from Canada,” Killens says. “We get fresh fish that top-of-the-line sushi places get.”
The story of TikiFish begins with Chef Wonny Lee, who after working at Japanese restaurants for half his culinary career decided to step out on his own. Lee and his partners opened the first TikiFish back in August inside the shopping center at Overland and Rose avenues, where it shares an address with ASAP Phorage parent restaurant Phorage.
Similar to Subway or Chipotle, customers create their own poke bowls by walking down the line with a server to choose from a variety of fresh items (base, protein, mix-ins, sauce, toppings and sides).
“As opposed to other poke places, where the menu may be daunting with so many items, ours is more approachable,” Killens says.
Killens met Lee while working at Catal Mediterranean Restaurant in Downtown Disney. Lee later recruited Killens to be his sous chef at L.A. sushi restaurant Hamasaku. Both young and hungry, they reconnected about three months ago when Lee tapped Killens to oversee his growing TikiFish operations. Already they are looking to expand, and soon Lee will be opening a sushi restaurant in his native Orange County.
Gordon’s Market is a surprising place to find not one, but two restaurants. It took some time for people to discover ASAP Phorage, and Killens imagines the same will be true for TikiFish. Only by walking straight to the back of the market, past the aisles of cleaning agents, pasta sauces and other basic goods, will you discover ASAP Phorage and TikiFish.
“Our biggest goal is trying to get the word out in the community,” Killens says, “because people walk in and say, ‘We didn’t know you were here.’”
At least they have something of a captive audience. Culver Boulevard traffic gets especially backed up during rush hour, and that makes Gordon’s an ideally situated pit stop for weary and hungry travelers.
From a stool at a high-top table in front of TikiFish’s counter, Killens speaks about a guy who just left the restaurant with a smile across his face and a poke bowl under his arm. The customer told Killens he has an hour-long commute and had stumbled out of his car and into the market looking forsomething to nosh. Poke, the man proclaimed, would help him stay sane on his drive home.
TikiFish’s most popular pokes are Tiki Tuna and Wiki Salmon — No. 1 and No. 2 on the menu. All of their sauces are house-made. And mixing sauces is encouraged: for example, Killens suggests combining garlic ponzu with spicy sesame ponzu.
Chefs Lee and Killens, both in their 30s, make for a hip culinary team. Jay-Z and Lauryn Hill play from the speakers. The creators of The Hundreds streetwear brand created the art on the walls. Last April work took them to Coachella, and in June they were poke-ing at Arroyo Seco Music and Arts Festival at the Rose Bowl.
“We use this Playa del Rey location as a test kitchen,” says Killens. “It’s more spacious than Overland, kitchen-wise, so we can play around and prepare for cooking events.”
Both chefs have energy and enthusiasm to spare and are looking forward to trying new things, and that’s what keeps Killens engaged and motivated. For instance, for the Los Angeles Taste of the Nation event this past June, Killens created kinilaw, a Filipino ceviche (he’s half black and half Filipino) with coconut citrus marinade and passion fruit puree.
“We plan to get more creative with programs,” he says. “Like Ceviche Fridays, Tostada Tuesdays and Musubi Wednesdays.”
Killens’ new job has many perks, including being beachside. But the biggest bonus: “The best thing about the food we serve is it’s fresh,” he says. “I don’t mind eating it every day.”
TikiFish is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.
TikiFish 303 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey (310) 439-2639 tiki.fish