The popularity wave of poke has hit Federal Way.
Big Island Poke, owned by Jaydean Gabriel, recently opened a second restaurant location in Federal Way; the first location is housed in Renton.
Poke (pronounced “po-kay”) is a Hawaiian word meaning “to slice” or cut into pieces. The dish consists of marinated raw fish, diced and cubed with rice, veggies and other mixings.
Federal Way’s seemingly untouched market, and taste palate, of poke was one of the main reasons to open up another small business shop, Gabriel said.
“Before Renton, I wanted to come here,” he said. “I wanted to stay away from Seattle, and there’s no poke in Federal Way.”
While various restaurants offer poke as a side dish or appetizer, Big Island Poke is one of the only restaurants dedicated solely to poke in Federal Way.
Born on the Big Island of Hawaii, Gabriel brings the authenticity of flavor to his meals.
“We couldn’t keep our door closed,” Gabriel said about Renton’s business upon opening in 2016. “It was overwhelming. I did not expect it to be like that at all.”
Federal Way’s poke spot has been open since January, but in striking contrast, business at the restaurant has been “tough,” Gabriel said.
Consulting with owners of surrounding shops, the winter months prove to be trying times for all businesses in Twin Lakes Village, he said.
“Our Renton location is still producing well,” he said. “Here … I think people are still trying to figure out what it is.”
The Federal Way shop is tucked along the strip mall in Twin Lakes, which isn’t as visible as Renton’s prime location along Rainier Avenue, Gabriel said.
“I knew that coming in,” he said. “What I go by is if you have good food, [customers] are going to come no matter where you’re at.”
Gabriel discovered the power of poke in 2014.
After working at an automotive shop for years, the field didn’t fuel his passion anymore, so Gabriel switched to a tastier industry.
On a visit to California years ago, Gabriel found his inspiration. It seemed as though poke was found on every block in Los Angeles, so Gabriel decided to jump the poke wave before it hit the Pacific Northwest.“I was tired of getting my hands dirty,” he joked. “I love food, I look cooking, and there was no poke at the time in the Washington area.”
Gabriel, along with his lifelong friend and business partner, opened a food truck called People of the Chubbs that serves poke among other Asian-Hawaiian-Mexican fusion dishes, he said.
“It bugged me, there was nothing authentic,” he said. “There were all these chains that were just mixing fish. I’m from Hawaii so poke, to me, is pretty simple.”
Opposed to chain restaurants, Big Island Poke focuses on marinating, allowing the fish to soak up all the flavors over time — a process that takes more time but yields better taste, Gabriel said.
Imitating what is done on the big island helps him craft his line-up of poke options: ahi tuna, salmon, octopus, imitation crab and more.
Big Island Poke also imports a few ingredients from Hawaii such as limu (seaweed), an important ingredient to the locals due to the health benefits, he said.
“I did this just to give everyone a taste of what I think traditional poke is.”
In Hawaii, the day’s batch of poke is made fresh and when it runs out, it’s out.
The business game plan changes on the mainland though, Gabriel said. He includes various side options and has turned his restaurants into more of a make-your-own-bowl, fast casual-style establishment.
“Every day gets better,” he said. “We see new people and we see return customers; we’re showing progress.”
People of the Chubbs food truck can be found at community street fair or food events, such as the Bite of Seattle and Taste of Tacoma.
Big Island Poke is located at 2128 SW 336th St. in Federal Way. For hours, menu and information on other locations, visit bigislandpokeinc.com.