Sweetfin Poké lets diners put their own spin on a Hawaiian dish that’s taking L.A. by storm

By Bethney Bonilla (bethney.bonilla@gmail.com)

This build-your-own poke bowl features salmon with Sriracha and ponzu sauce  on a bed of kale, seaweed, edamame and onion Yelp photo by Crystal T.

This build-your-own poke bowl features salmon with Sriracha and ponzu sauce
on a bed of kale, seaweed, edamame and onion
Yelp photo by Crystal T.

There’s a special kind of thrill to building your own meal, but for me it comes with a heaping side order of anxiety.

I feared succumbing to the blank stare. You know the one I’m talking about — it happens at Chipotle after you spend the 20 minutes waiting in line on Instagram instead of deciding what to order, or at The Counter when the waitress comes around to pick up your order sheet and you’re only halfway down the list.

I vowed I wouldn’t let the blank stare happen to me this time — not here, not at this beloved Westside poké joint.

I had planned my Monday night trip to Sweetfin Poké a few days in advance to allow enough time for online menu stalking so I could have my perfect order ready. (Please don’t tell me I’m the only one who does this!) The self-imposed pressure was on because I’d been hearing about the place for months.

Poké has become quite the trend on the mainland, away from its roots on the Hawaiian Islands. L.A.-area restaurateurs and chefs — responding to local restaurant goers’ insatiable sushi cravings and growing desire for raw, fresh foods — have revamped the dish into a not-so-traditional foodie sensation.

Sweetfin in particular is known for its extensive list of eclectic topping options: macadamia nuts, blistered shishito peppers, wasabi-toasted coconut flakes and chili-marinated oranges, to name a few. Not to mention several sauce options, which always translates to ‘I’m there’!

Monday came and I assumed I was ready. Contrary to what one would suspect after seeing a line of customers stretching well outside the shop’s doorway (and on a weeknight), the street parking was plentiful. “There’s a line every time I come,” a woman in front of me told her companion, “but it’s so worth it.”

When I got inside Sweetfin, my first welcome was the aroma. The place had the crisp scent of freshly cut veggies, like at a juice bar. The ambience was visually appealing, too. From the fair-colored wood-clad walls to the gold custom light fixtures and beachy upholstery, the place was heavenly chic. It was filled with faces that looked as fresh as the fish, but the casual atmosphere eased the “I have my life together, do you?” vibe I was sensing from the young crowd around me.

Then there it was, my big moment. Sweetfin had presented me, on a silver platter, the chance to create my dining experience exactly the way I wanted. (They really do serve their meals on a tin silver tray, by the way.) I walked right up to the friendly hipster with the order-taking iPad and then … nothing. I had completely forgotten the ingredi-

ents of the build-your-own bowl I had so meticulously crafted.

Far from totally flustered, I knew I could rely on the signature bowls, which I read had been flawlessly created by former “Top Chef” contestant Dakota Weiss. The salmon with yuzu kosho sauce, edamame and lime as well as the mango albacore with ponzu-lime sauce, macadamia nuts and ginger each spoke to me. Even the veggie options seemed like they could please any palette.

But then, miraculously, it all came to me. There was a sense of empowerment that washed over me as I spoke my just-remembered order.

“Can I get a regular-size Build Your Own Bowl, with salmon, half bamboo rice/half kelp noodles, yuzu kosho sauce, edamame, crispy onions, avocado and mango,” I said proudly. “With Sriracha and fresh ginger on the side.”

A stranger walking in would have mistaken me as a regular after that performance, but I knew my initial jaw-dropped gaze didn’t fool the hipster man.

Despite my growling stomach, I refrained from grabbing a bag of the Matcha popcorn placed strategically next to the checkout counter. But I could have afforded it. For a meal that was sure to fulfill my hunger for sushi, I was pleased to find that it didn’t break my bank account. A regular BYOB with avocado was just $10.95.

A short time after being seated, my name was finally called. The last of my group to receive my silver tray, I could have sworn I heard a gong strike mealtime. Time to dig in!

The rush took over me as I wallowed in the dish I had been anticipating and planning for days. It was my dream sushi roll, unraveled and exquisitely arranged in the kind of bowl out I would normally eat my acai out of. Each square cut piece of poké was fresh and not overly dressed in the spicy citrus sauce — and this coming from someone who just recently became comfortable with eating raw fish.

I may have overdone it with the Sriracha — which had me walking to refill my tiny plastic water cup three or four times — but each element, from the rice to the mango, coalesced into a uniquely invigorating taste experience.

Not only was my craving being utterly satisfied, I could attest to the fact that Sweetfin had lived up to its “Pole to Bowl” philosophy of using fresh ingredients. At the end of my meal there was only one problem. I wanted more. Perhaps I’ll go for the large bowl next time.

The joy that comes with custom meal building may seem overrated to some, but Sweetfin Poké shows that custom bowls are infallible when the ingredients are superior. This time, it’s build-your-owns for the win!

Sweetfin Poké 829 Broadway, Santa Monica (310) 395-1097 sweetfinpoke.com