- By Wyatt Williams For the AJC
Have you had a spicy tuna sushi burrito with a salmon poke bowl on the side yet? If not, you won’t have to go far.
Drawing on the Hawaiian tradition of poke (pronounced po-kay), the Japanese tradition of rolled sushi, and the American tradition of assembly-line capitalism, a new class of restaurants has exploded in the past year across the country, Atlanta included. What should we call this? Fast casual chirashi or poke fever or sushirrito style or Chipotle but with raw fish? None of that is exactly right, but it gets the spirit: raw fish and Pacific flavors, customizable to your deeply American, highly specific diet.
Take Poke Bar in Sandy Springs. This is the first Georgia location of a chain that boasts more than a dozen locations in California. Compared to its peers, Poke Bar is simultaneously the most traditional and the most similar to ordering at Chipotle. That means you’ll be getting a rice bowl and ordering each specific ingredient as you walk along a glass counter. A helpful employee will load up ice cream scoop-size portions of spicy tuna or chopped octopus, toppings like masago (tiny fish roe) or wasabi or pickled seaweed, and dressings including sweet chili or wasabi shoyu. At the end, you’ll have a few dry seasonings to choose from, too. (Don’t miss the furikake.)
It’s easy to see why this hodgepodge of Hawaiian and Japanese flavors has become so popular today. As our diets have become increasingly an expression of ourselves, customization means everyone can be happy. Raw fish and rice sounds lean and healthy, so long as you can resist the spicy mayo. Living that gluten-free lifestyle? Skip the rice and add lettuce instead. (Think: the spring mix you buy in a box at the grocery store.) Trying to be vegan? You won’t be disappointed if you load up on tofu, avocado and sweet chili sauce.
On the other hand, I get a little exhausted trying to keep the dozens of possible flavor combinations straight while saying each and every ingredient aloud. I’ve liked the bowls I’ve eaten at Poke Bar, especially the way the tuna mixes well with crunchy masago and pickled cucumbers alongside furikake-topped rice. Yet, I can’t escape the feeling that with all the available ingredients, I’ve never chosen exactly right. Maybe that’s what keeps people coming back, but I like a restaurant that can tell me what they do best.
In that way, I’ve enjoyed my meals at Poke Burri in East Atlanta Village. This is a bootstraps operation, just two guys standing behind a small counter in the Global Grub Collective, a diverse, miniature food hall operated by the owner of We Suki Suki. I love eating in that room, packed in tight at communal tables and surrounded by international food served by budding entrepreneurs. Poke Burri is a clear standout among its neighbors and, though the wait can be long, ordering is easy. You simply circle what you’d like on a short menu with a marker and wait for your name to be called. If you must customize, don’t worry. The back side of the menu has a checklist of every available ingredient.
The salmon poke bowl here is loaded with pickled ginger, cabbage, carrots, beets, cucumber, edamame, avocado, spicy mayo, seaweed and lean, fresh-tasting bright orange salmon. Sound overwhelming? Actually, it comes together quite nicely, with the crunch of the mandolin-thin shredded veggies balancing out the heavy, creamy mayo.
There are a number of sushi burritos available, too. This super-sized sushi roll is, naturally, the logical next step in the Chipotle-style influence on these ingredients. (All of these restaurants would call them “sushirritos,” I’m sure, if a forward-thinking chain in San Francisco hadn’t already trademarked it.) Try the Demogorgon, a spicy tuna roll loaded with tempura flake and eel sauce. It’s OK, but the size gets in the way of the flavors.
Somewhere in the process of making this “sushi but bigger” modern mashup, the delicate balance of flavor and texture between fish and rice and vinegar has been lost for me. Sure, they’re convenient and filling, but given the choice, I’d take a rice bowl over a sushi burrito every time.
The real surprise mashup indulgence at Poke Burri are the spicy tuna nachos. I was skeptical at first, but the ultra-crispy wonton chips, loaded with mashed-up spicy tuna, avocado and Sriracha-spiked mayo, won me over.
If there is any Atlanta-based sushirrito and poke bowl restaurant poised to make an impact that lasts beyond this current fad, I think it might be Boruboru Sushi in Emory Point. This place is the brainchild of Michael Rome Noe, a former sushi chef who once worked for the masterful Tomo Naito at Tomo in Buckhead. As such, Boruboru exhibits a level of flash and polish, a familiarity and understanding of the ingredients that is unusual for a fast-casual restaurant.
Instead of choosing from a list of rolls or bowls like at Poke Burri, you pick from a set of flavorful ingredient combinations, any of which can be made into a rice bowl, sushi burrito or salad. This is convenient, but it also allows Boruboru’s ingredients to achieve their greatest potential. You might not have guessed that daikon radish would be such a lovely complement to barbecued eel, but here it is. Crispy, meaty salmon skin is paired surprisingly with toasted coconut and pickled jalapeno.
The house Boruboru spicy tuna is impressive and rich, an inspired combination of masago, macadamia nuts, pickled red onions, crispy fried onions and avocado. It hasn’t surprised me at all to find this place regularly filled with hungry Emory students. Among trends like this, it can be hard to stand out, but Boruboru is doing just that.