Poke is “having a moment” in Los Angeles, with no less than five restaurants specializing in the popular Hawaiian dish opening recently. Of this new wave, the closest to me is Sweetfin Poké in Santa Monica, which opened just two weeks ago. Anticipation has been high for this bright, modern space, fittingly next to the ostensibly Hawaiian-inspired gourmet burger joint Pono Burger on Broadway. News that chef Dakota Weiss, a Top Chef season 9 competitor, would be the culinary brains behind the operation, just stoked the fires. On opening day, I arrived at 11:35 AM, a mere 5 minutes after their doors opened, and I was already the 8th or 9th person in line!
At Sweetfin Poké, you have the option to Build Your Own Bowl, but chef Weiss has developed a series of Signature Bowls with specific combinations of ingredients that are very well composed. The selection on the menu is quite extensive, and most people can probably find something they like, unless they don’t like fish, or Japanese influenced flavors, in which case they’re in the wrong establishment!
One can make 90 combinations with just the six “Top It” selections (tuna, salmon, snapper, albacore, tofu, seafood), five “Sauce It” choices (Classic, Creamy Togarashi, Yuzu Koshu[sic], Ponzu-Lime, Sriracha Ponzu), and three “Base It” platforms (Bamboo Rice, Kelp Noodle-Cucumber Slaw, Citrus-Kale Salad)! That doesn’t even count the two-dozen-plus “Add Ons” that can be used to further customize your poke. It can be daunting, so I highly recommend starting with a Signature Bowl and then adding on–that’s what I did on my first visit!
Spicy Yuzu Salmon on Kelp Noodle-Cucumber Slaw: I was very happy with my first taste of Sweetfin. I added on seaweed salad and fresh ginger to this Signature Bowl, which also comes with edamame, soy beans. The yuzukosho, a sauce made with yuzu and pickled chiles, lent a spicy-tart note to the bright, fresh fish. The snappy “crunchiness” of the kelp noodles, as well as the soy beans and seaweed salad, were great textural contrasts to the salmon. [$12.95 for a large]
BYOB – Albacore, Ponzu-Lime, Bamboo Rice: On my second visit, I tried my hands at the Build Your Own Bowl (BYOB), and my results were somewhat mixed. Normally I would have gone with the yuzukosho for this fish, but since I already had that with the salmon I wanted to try something different, and as a result, the albacore seemed a little bland. The tobiko (flying fish roe) add-on didn’t seem to pack the usual salty punch either.
The part I had the most trouble with, though, was the Bamboo Rice, which is short grain rice cooked with bamboo roots. It has a greenish tint to it, normally, though what I had in this bowl looked as white as rice to me and didn’t taste much different either. The main issue was that it was quite al dente, with an almost undercooked texture. When I asked one of the owners about it, he said they were going for a rice that was not as moist and sticky, but I felt what I had on that visit wasn’t exactly what they were going for. [$13.95 for a large]
While I went twice of my own volition, my third visit about a week after they opened was an invite from Krupa Consulting, the PR company that was helping promote Sweetfin. Instead of having a pre-made selection to sample from, I was able to order two of the Signature Bowls to try.
Kale Snapper on Citrus-Kale Salad: I haven’t seen snapper before on a poke menu–granted I’ve only been to a handful of poke establishments–and was curious to see how it would. Being a milder fish, the shoyu-sesame oil sauce helped give the snapper some flavor, with the chile marinated oranges providing a fairly mellow kick. The kale salad is a great healthy option, but of the three bases I definitely prefer the kelp noodles. [$12.95 for a large, hosted]
Classic Tuna on Bamboo Rice: I have to say the Bamboo Rice in this Signature Bowl grew on me a bit. The rice did have the greenish tint it was lacking in the previous bowl and a little more flavor. It still has a very firm texture, so keep that in mind if you go with this base. It worked best when the fish was well mixed into the rice. The tuna itself was very fresh and flavorful, as it should be. The crispy onions were a fun addition–I saw lots of people getting this add-on! [$12.95 for a large, hosted]
BYOB – Salmon, Classic Sauce, Kelp Noodle-Cucumber Slaw: On my most recent visit, I brought my wife, and this was her creation. She really piled on the textures with crispy garlic and onions, cucumbers, and macadamia nuts. On that visit, Sweetfin was particularly swamped, and chile oil was added to my wife’s bowl even though she hadn’t asked for it. Also the sauce did not taste like the classic shoyu-sesame oil that she selected. Fortunately, she loved what she got, and, ironically, she said she’d order it again except she’s not quite sure what exact combination of choices made it taste the way it did. [$13.95 for a large]
Shiitake Chili Tofu on Kelp Noodle-Cucumber Slaw: I figured I’d try one of the vegetarian options, and went with this Signature Bowl. It was pretty darn good, though it was missing the chile oil that perhaps ended up in my wife’s bowl instead. I boosted the protein with edamame and loaded up on umami (the supposed “fifth” taste that the Japanese use to describe foods that are more “flavorful”) with seaweed salad and the pickled shiitake mushrooms that is part of this bowl. I’d probably still opt for fish over tofu though, but it’s great that vegetarians and even vegans have options here. [$12.95 for a large]
All of the bowls pictured above are Large, which cost $12.95. A Small is $8.95. Regardless of size, the bowls are $1.00 less with tofu or veggies instead of fish. The add-ons are mostly free and you can add as many as you want, though four of them are considered “premium” (avocado, flying fish roe, macadamia nuts, pickled shiitake mushrooms) and are $1.00 additional each.
From what I’ve seen these past two weeks, Sweetfin Poké is doing quite alright! Lunch lines are long but move quickly. They’re doing a brisk takeout business as well. The housemade iced teas are excellent–I’ve tried the guava and the mango curry ginger tea–as are their fruit-infused coconut waters. They also sell something called Matcha Pop, which are not green tea paletas like I had assumed, but popcorn tossed with matcha, white chocolate, toasted coconut–the closest thing they have to dessert (so far), and quite addicting!
Their perhaps not-fully anticipated success means they’ve had some inventory issues. On more than one occasion one or more of the fish were not available. On my most recent visit, they were out of Bamboo Rice. But they are learning and stocking more and more appropriately and have recently changed their hours from being closed for a few hours in the afternoon–like a sushi restaurant–to opening straight through from 11:30 AM to 9 PM.
My biggest issue with Sweetfin is that I’m not quite full after even a Large bowl. Also, their prices are a bit higher than, say, the Venice Beach poke mainstay Poke-Poke, which are $7/$11 for Small and Large sizes, respectively, but presumably Sweetfin has higher overhead. Also, despite the variety of options at Sweetfin, you cannot get your poke “Hawaiian Style” (without rice) like at most of the old school poke spots–at least the menu doesn’t mention it. None of this is going to stop me from going back, though!
Santa Monica, CA 90401