Curious about those poke (pronounced “POH-keh”) bowls surfacing on more and more menus around town? Getting in on this flavorful Hawaiian staple just got easier with Pittsburgh Poke making build-your-own poke bowls the main focus at its newly-opened Downtown eatery on Liberty Ave. Even more poke bowls are on the horizon with Kahuna Juice and Poke Bar (from the team behind Muddy Waters Oyster Bar) set to open later this year in East Liberty.

So what exactly is poke?

It’s a classic Hawaiian dish featuring sliced and marinated raw fish mixed with a wide variety of other ingredients served up in a bowl. Wildly popular in Hawaii, it’s been popping up on menus and in poke bars across the states in recent years.

Locally, Mount Everest Sushi (Oakland), Hidden Harbor (Squirrel Hill), Penn Ave. Fish Company (Strip District) and Tan Izakaya (Shadyside) and Kaya (Strip District) have all featured poke on their menus. Pittsburgh Poke puts the bowls front and center.

The name comes from the Hawaiian word meaning “to slice or cut out.” Typically, seaweed and salt are mixed in with cut-up pieces of freshly caught fish as a traditional snack. Japanese and other Asian influences bring in elements like soy sauce, green onions, fish roe and the wide variety of condiments seen in poke bowls today.

As poke became more popular, chefs started to put their own creative spins on the traditional dish. The “build your-own-bowl” concept at Pittsburgh Poke passes some of that creativity along to the customer. There’s still the option of ordering a bowl from the menu, or simply having all your choices wrapped up as a “sushi burrito” instead. (Think big sushi roll.)

Pittsburgh Poke on Liberty Ave., Downtown.
Pittsburgh Poke on Liberty Ave. Downtown.

The family run business is casual, nothing fancy, with several tables for dining and a few additional food options beyond the poke menu. The friendly staff, used to fielding a lot of questions, keeps things moving.

The ordering process works like this: customers pick a base of rice or greens, add in protein choices like raw fish and ceviche-like marinades (even chicken and tofu), select from a host of mix-ins including avocado, onions, mango and cucumber, top with sauces like ginger-sesame or classic spicy mayo, and finally, add more toppings.

It’s easy to put together combinations that are crunchy, vibrant and tangy with a little heat if you like.

“The create-your-own bowls are the most popular because people like to get creative,” says owner Kyaw Shwe. “It’s also fresh and healthy,” he adds, noting that the combination of high-protein and fresh ingredients can make it a lighter option that’s filling, but not a gut-buster.

With so many choices, it’s easy to see why the lines get long at times, especially during the lunch hour, with a Downtown workforce always looking for new options.

“We’re getting a lot of customers from PNC Plaza and Gateway Center,” says Shwe.

Lines were not much of an issue when I stopped in and my poke bowl (ordered off the menu) came together quickly—or “wiki wiki,” as Hawaiians say. But it was tasty enough that a short wait would have easily been worth it.

Pittsburgh Poke is located at 500 Liberty Ave., near Stanwix St. and is open Monday – Saturday from 11:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. (closed Sundays).

Tom O'Connor

Tom O'Connor is a photographer and writer currently based in Pittsburgh.