I am a little late to the poke party, but hey, at least I made it here. There is nothing about a poke bowl (or a sushi bowl — or a Hawaiian plate lunch, for that matter), that I do not support wholeheartedly.
As you read this review, keep in mind that Champaign’s Poke Shack location is the first —and so far only — poke shop I have ever visited. I have nothing to compare it to, even though I’ve actually been to Hawaii. Having said that, for this review my family and I got food from Poke Shack a few times, and so we got to sample a good variety of their offerings.
Poke Shack has two locations: one in Mahomet, and one in Champaign at The Fields. The Champaign location is set up mostly for to-go orders, although there is counter seating and outdoor seating that can handle eight folks total, four inside and four outside.
When picking up your order, you have the option of grabbing small to-go ramekins full of condiments: wasabi paste, pickled ginger, sriracha, spicy mayo, and sushi sauce. My best guess is that each ramekin measures ½ tablespoon. There are also packets of soy sauce and utensils, including chopsticks.
Starting with the dish that contains their namesake ingredient, here’s the scoop on their poke bowl ($9.95). It starts with a choice of white sushi rice, brown rice, or greens as the base (we opted for sushi rice), shredded carrots, diced cucumber, daikon, red cabbage, and fresh edamame, to which they add your choice of poke and any additional toppings you want to spring for.
We ordered it with salmon poke and opted to add tempura crunch for 25 cents. I tend to eat salmon in grizzly bear-like quantities, but I had never had it prepared as poke (in other words, raw, cut into chunks, and seasoned). I tried a tiny bit on its own and was surprised to detect a subtle smoke flavor, much like lox.
I loved the rich texture of the glossy, melt-in-your-mouth-yet-slightly-chewy salmon poke. However, in my opinion, what really makes their poke bowl (and several of the other dishes I tried) take culinary flight is getting to tailor each bite. Like the right dressing turns a good salad into an indulgence, Poke Shack’s assortment of condiments tie together all of the various components of their bowls. The fattiness of the salmon poke plays well with the comforting starchiness of the sticky sushi rice, and both are brightened nicely by the crunch of fresh veggies. Add a sweet, salty punch from the sushi sauce or a touch of the silky, smoky, spicy mayo, and you’re in business.
Moving on to the sushi bowls, we tried the smoked salmon ($9.95) and the combo bowl ($12.95). Besides the lack of poke, the main difference between a poke bowl and a sushi bowl seems to be that they add a drizzle of sushi sauce and, depending on what kind of sushi bowl you order, toppings they’ve chosen to accent the dish.
The smoked salmon sushi bowl (pictured without scallions; I’m wondering if they were out that day) features a generous serving of their minced smoked salmon. The briny, smoky savoriness of their salmon may be even more pronounced than in most smoked salmon I’ve enjoyed in the past. Because of the high — and perfect, in my opinion — seasoning level of their smoked salmon, you may find you don’t need quite as much extra sauce as you put together a bite of this sushi bowl; however, if you’re a sauce lover, you can totally still add extra dashes of your favorites without over seasoning the dish.
The combo sushi bowl contains krab salad, ground spicy tuna, hot fire shrimp, avocado, spicy mayo, tempura crunch, and nori flakes. This was really enough food for two meals, or at least a meal and a snack. However, on our first visit, this was my main dish, and as I dug in I soon realized I wasn’t about to leave any of it behind. I felt like a kid in a candy store dipping my chopsticks first into this portion of the bowl, then that, then adding this, that, or the other sauce. This is fun eating at its best.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a standout memory of those components individually, with the possible exception of the ground spicy tuna. I don’t usually order tuna, but I loved the clean, fatty flavor of theirs, especially with all of the other sauces and ingredients with which to pair it.
A quick word about the spice level of their offerings: we sampled a few items advertised as spicy (the hot fire shrimp and ground spicy tuna), but I wouldn’t say a person who avoids spicy foods would find these too much to handle. I am sort of a bad one to ask if something is too spicy, though; I’ll usually say no. Having said that, I do think their sriracha is hotter than what we have on our table at home, and I loved it.
Moving on to the Hawaiian plate lunches, all come with steamed (white) rice and a choice of two side dishes: Hawaiian rolls, Hawaiian mac salad, pineapple coleslaw, boiled cabbage, or a steamed broccoli/cauliflower/carrot medley, or you can double any individual side you choose.
The loco moco ($10.95) is advertised as a quarter pound burger covered with homestyle brown gravy and topped with a fried egg. I would say it is exactly as advertised, although it’s important to note that their burger patty is well seasoned, and with the addition of the rich, silky gravy, seems almost like meatloaf. We ordered it with rolls and boiled cabbage, which — though nothing extraordinary — certainly held up their end of the bargain in terms of rounding out the dish.
Poke Shack’s kalua pork ($10.95) is a safe bet for pulled pork fans. It was not smoky like barbecue but slow roasted well and seasoned to perfection. The simple, sweet succulence of pork shines through in this dish, which is also a good foil for Poke Shack’s variety of sauces. We ordered it with pineapple coleslaw and Hawaiian rolls as the sides. The coleslaw is nicely balanced, with a lightly sweet dressing which almost certainly contains some pineapple juice, and a few larger pieces of pineapple mixed in. The rolls would be a good choice for anyone wanting to turn the shredded meat into a sandwich. In fact, if you order rolls as one of your sides they give you two, which would make it even easier for two people to share this plate lunch.
Being the only bone-in chicken enthusiast in my family, I concentrated on the huli huli chicken ($11.95), with Hawaiian mac salad and steamed veggies as the sides. I had to do some research: huli means “turn” in Hawaiian, and apparently it’s what people start to chant when the chicken, while being spit roasted, is in need of a flip.
I’m not sure how they achieve their tender results — maybe they use a spit, but that’s hard to imagine — but it works. They serve leg quarters; again, a portion potentially big enough to share. I envisioned a saucy finish, and while the chicken was well seasoned, it was also sauceless. However, this once again gave me a good opportunity to play with their delicious to-go sauces. I probably should have grabbed more, or asked for larger containers.
The steamed broccoli, cauliflower, and carrot medley was no more or less than what was advertised, and enjoying it with my meal helped me feel a smidge more healthy. The Hawaiian mac salad was a bit of a conundrum. It had a creamy but grainy texture, much like potato salad, with bits of macaroni, cheese, and veggies mixed in. It was yummy comfort food, although on the bland side.
A few more observations about Poke Shack: their online ordering platform could not be much more user friendly, and the two times I used it, the food was waiting for me at the time I requested. Their food also is what I would consider an incredible value in terms of quality for price, especially when you throw ease of ordering and pick-up into the mix.
What really impresses me about Poke Shack, however, is that they seem to have a little something for every taste. My pescatarian daughter, who is an adventurous eater, loves everything about their bowls. My husband and son tend to salivate more over straight up meat and carb combinations, and they really enjoyed the loco moco and kalua pork. Like I said, I’m a bone-in chicken girl, but being the only one who likes it in my family, I don’t have it that often. Having an order of huli-huli chicken almost to myself felt like a treat.
As I wrote at the beginning, I had an inkling I would really like poke and other Hawaiian dishes, and my experiences at Poke Shack have only turned that assumption into a certainty.
The Poke Shack Champaign
3401 Fields South Dr
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.