Already fitted with nearly every type of cuisine, ranging from barbecue and pizza to Japanese fusion, Over-the-Rhine is adding a hula skirt to its arsenal. Poke Hut Fish & Tea Bar, a Hawaiian-inspired seafood spot specializing in poke bowls and burritos, opened its doors at 1509 Race St. last week for a soft opening.
Poke (pronounced POE-KAY) is already available in the neighborhood in small doses (see: Quan Hapa, Kaze), but no restaurant has pushed it to the forefront of its menu like Poke Hut. Owners Sally Lin and her fiancé Baret Kilbacak hope to feed the Queen City’s budding desire for the trendy dish.
“I think it’s perfect for Cincinnati,” Lin says. “OTR is such a vibrant community, so I’m surprised that it doesn’t have much poke yet.”
Publications like Business Insider and Bloomberg (and HuffPo and People), have recognized the high-protein, customizable bowl as the biggest fast-casual food trend this year. A quick search of #pokebowl on Instagram and you will uncover celebrities posting photos of their poke, recipes for how to make your own and food-blogger snaps galore.
For Poke Hut, Lin and Kilbacak are pulling from the beaches of Hawaii and California to transform the traditional poke model into something more modern.
“In its most traditional form, poke is just fish, usually tuna, simply marinated in scallions, onions and soy sauce, served over a bed of rice,” Lin says. “The way we’re doing it is more of a fusion poke, similar to what you see in California, where there’s a lot more topping options and different proteins.”
Poke Hut offers its fair share of raw fish favorites (spicy tuna, scallops, salmon) in addition to cooked chicken, pork, beef and shrimp, with tofu and veggies for vegetarians. Start with a base for your bowl or burrito, like sushi rice or zucchini noodles, then add a protein, pick a sauce (sweet miso, spicy yuzu, shoyu sesame, etc.) and top it with items ranging from radish and pineapple to hot Cheetos and masago.
Aligning with busy go-getters dining on a budget, Poke Hut offers its signature bowls and “Pokirritos” for just $9.50, with build-your-options topping out at around $15.
“It’s great for OTR because there are a lot of really good food options here, but they’re not fast-casual,” Lin says. “You have to spend hours if you want to go somewhere and eat. It always turns into a whole evening ordeal.”
Co-owner Kilbacak first had poke on a trip to Hawaii. With a close friend and his brother at his side, Kilbacak put together a schedule to take advantage of his time in the Aloha State, with surf sessions stacked on top of hikes and hula dances. With time at a premium, the trio sought out fast-casual, native cuisine in between waves, a search that ultimately led them to Hawaiian poke.
Kilbacak and friends stumbled upon a nearby shack serving up fresh poke bowls. The three then took their findings to a vacant lifeguard house to enjoy their food within arm’s reach of crashing waves.
Hoping to recreate this beachside experience at home, Kilbacak called on a family friend, Ryan Ye, to help him and Lin bring Poke Hut to fruition.
Most recently a sushi and seafood specialist in New York, Ye moved to Cincinnati to become Poke Hut’s manager and chef. Previously, he has followed his passion for the kitchen across the country, going from Alabama to Philadelphia and several stops in between to continue to refine his craft.
“I learned a lot about raw fish and the restaurant business,” Ye says. “I learned how to keep fish the most fresh. That’s the most important thing about this kind of restaurant, keeping the ingredients the most fresh.”
In additions to its comestibles, Poke Hut pairs its food with a range of bubble and milk teas (an Asian-inspired beverage; Lin’s family is from China) and specialty drinks.
“One of my favorites is the strawberry matcha latte,” Lin says. “It’s going to be a green bubble tea with strawberry purée, so that’s going to be really refreshing.”
And Lin has made sure to pump in as much Hawaii into the restaurant as possible. The televisions run a live stream of waves crashing onto a Hawaiian beach while tropical, easy-going music plays over the speakers.
PokeHut Fish & Tea Bar is located at 1509 Race St., Over-the-Rhine. Find more info at pokehutusa.com.