The Hawaiian staple hits downtown
by Karen O. Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
In Austin, there are three basic food groups: barbecue, Tex-Mex and poke. Austin has gone gaga over this Hawaiian-style raw fish, and you can barely swing a dockless scooter without hitting a new poke joint. But out of this proliferation, some have broken from the pack. Take Malibu Poke, for instance.
A recent arrival to town, the eatery opened in November in downtown’s Seaholm District. What makes Malibu Poke special is not just its light and beachy ambiance and nifty self-serve ordering system, but also its die-hard commitment to quality ingredients. With a pristine dish based around raw fish, you can’t cut corners. And Malibu Poke doesn’t.
For the uninitiated, poke is diced raw fish tossed with Asian condiments and served in a bowl. Pronounced “po-kay,” it has been a staple of the Hawaiian diet for decades. It’s a simple dish, where fresh fish is unequivocally the star. The classic recipe calls for tuna tossed with soy sauce, sesame oil and green onions. But there are as many permutations as the imagination allows: different types of fish, a kaleidoscope of flavorings, with or without rice and so forth.
Malibu Poke offers the traditional tuna, but also salmon, hamachi, shrimp, tofu and, coming soon, chicken. Once you’ve decided on your protein, it’s time to pick your toppings and build your bowl — and the staff encourages letting your creativity fly. For sauces, there are almost a dozen delicious homemade flavors, like spicy chile, wasabi – ponzu, red miso, coconut curry, spicy aioli, garlic-ginger, tropical chimichurri, bonito aioli and the ever-popular Malibu Sauce, a combo of all the above.
With almost 40 choices, the topping selection is dizzying. Malibu promotes a less-is-more approach, although you can request as many as you like. On my first visit, I exercised restraint. But on subsequent drop-ins, I giddily piled my bowl high with all sorts of goodies. There are crisp fresh veggies like carrots, jicama, red and daikon radish, cucumber and slivered red onions. Plus, avocado, edamame, marinated shiitake mushrooms and white pickled ginger. For added crunch, there are macadamia nuts, spiced peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, crispy shallots and arare crackers. Fresh herbs like basil, mint and chives add aromatics to your bowl. Or enhance the bowl with a dusting of savory seasonings like umami powder, furikake, togarashi or bonito flakes. Like your bowl with a kick? Then add some serrano pepper, wasabi tobiko, sansho pepper, sriracha or chile oil. Or for a hint of sweetness, there’s fresh mango, orange slices, Asian pear, toasted coconut or teriyaki sauce.
Is your head spinning? There’s more: It’s time to select the base for your poke masterpiece. The restaurant offers traditional sushi or brown rice, as well as low-carb cauliflower rice, tender kale and a delightfully fresh seaweed blend that’s a far cry from the slimy, neon-green supermarket variety.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the options, then order one of Malibu Poke’s signature bowls, featuring chef-selected combinations like classic tuna, wasabi-ponzu salmon, coconut-curry hamachi, garlic-ginger tofu or the Whole 30-approved tropical chimichurri shrimp.
Ordering your poke bowl is almost as much fun as creating it. At Malibu Poke, diners order from self-serve monitors. These high-tech kiosks educate diners on ingredients and allow them to quickly choose their favorite combinations, thus minimizing waiting in line. If you’re a repeat customer — and there are a lot of those at Malibu — the ordering system features facial and credit card recognition technology that recalls your order history.
Don’t overlook the drink offerings at Malibu Poke. There’s a full selection of local beers, wine and sake, plus low-sugar cocktails and mocktails, including the Malibu Poke Old-Fashioned. My favorite was the signature “frose,” refreshingly slushy frozen rosé that was just the right balance of sweet and tart.
Cheerful and airy, Malibu Poke’s interior was designed by renowned Austin architect Michael Hsu. If it weren’t for Seaholm’s nearby smokestacks, you’d think you were in Southern California. And although the restaurant takes its inspiration from more-tropical climes, it’s actually an import from Dallas, where restaurateur Jon Alexis opened the first outpost in 2017. Alexis worked with James Beard-nominated chef Matt McCallister, of FT33 fame, to elevate “quick serve” poke by demanding fine-dining-quality ingredients and attention to detail in a fast-casual concept. Can you find cheaper poke in Austin? Sure. But I challenge you to find anything as fresh, tasty and versatile as Malibu Poke.