Food and art connect at Aloha Poke Co. in Pacific Beach/San Diego


At Aloha Poke Co., presentation isn't everything, but it's certainly key in this newcomer to PB's recipe for success.

"We treat our bowls like a piece of art," says McKensie Kahnweiler, the affable West Coast executive director of the two-and-a-half-year-old company that was founded in Chicago.

With ingredients to choose from that include pineapple, edamame, cucumber, avocado, jalapeno and seaweed, Aloha Poke Co.'s bowls are served up bursting with color as well as flavor.

The poke bowls, which come in eight-ounce, 16-ounce and (the most popular) 24-ounce sizes, are made with ahi tuna, salmon, shrimp or tofu — your choice, and a base of either white or brown rice, mixed greens or kelp noodles. When it comes to the other ingredients, you can mix and match any way you desire.

"Each ingredient tastes good with each other," says Kahnweiler. "Everything is included in the price."

Aloha Poke Co.'s Pacific Beach outlet opened June 27 near the corner of Hornblend Street and Mission Boulevard. It's housed in a bright, welcoming space that's part industrial, part Hawaiian luau. The tall glass windows soak in the Southern California sun, the breezes blow in from the beach less than a block away, and a neon sign over the preparation bar reads "WISH YOU WERE HERE."

Kahnweiler calls the space's combination of black and white with Hawaiian accents, conceived by Chicago designers, "beachy grunge."

Aloha Poke Co. actually began in the Chicago French Market at a stand inside the city's principal train station. The founders discovered, Kahnweiler says, that "people are used to building their own bowls," and they decided that no dishes would be pre-mixed. The assemble-to-order concept was such a hit that Aloha Poke Co. soon expanded to Denver, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee.

Its other West Coast locations are in Century City and Marina Del Rey. Chicagoan Kahnweiler, who'd previously worked as concessions manager at Wrigley Field before coming west to work for the Valley View Casino Center (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena), is now a PB resident herself.

So what's the appeal of poke?

"People love sushi," says Kahnweiler, "and poke provides a cheaper option to still get your sushi fix."

Poke eaters "enjoy the flavors and how they all meld together. Even people who don't like sushi end up liking this. In poke you have the softness, you have the texture, you have all those veggies. It gives people a different kind of experience."

Not only that, but poke is good for you. "Poke has everything you need in one meal. It has your starch, it has your protein, it has your veggies. It's a healthy, fulfilling meal," says Kahnweiler, pointing out that you create your own bowl from the many choices available and can make it "as healthy as you want."

If you're new to poke, fear not.

"If somebody says this is their first time eating poke, we tell them to get marinated fish in a crunch bowl," she says. "A lot of customers are excited about the concept and just want to become more educated about it."

At Aloha Poke Co., you order as you would at a Chipotle, choosing your base (rice, mixed greens or kelp noodles), your raw fish or tofu, either marinated or "naked"), your ingredients and your sauces, everything from wasabi to spicy aioli to sesame vinaigrette. The staff prepares your order as you watch and is happy to answer questions.

Bowls, topped with sesame seeds, range in price from $9.50 for the eight-ounce serving up to $16.50 for the 24-ounce serving. Extras include a Tuna Crisp (served like a tostada) for $5.50, a Rice Ball (stuffed with shrimp or veggies) for $3.75 and the very popular Walkin Poke combo of poke and Fritos ($5.50 to $8.50).

Many locals have become regulars, and given its location, Aloha Poke Co. also benefits from considerable walkup tourist traffic. There is — and this point can't be overstated — a parking lot next door to Aloha Poke Co. on Hornblend, and parking there is free for 30 minutes for customers.

"We also are very big in catering," says Kahnweiler. "We do about three caterings a week. We do street fairs and we were at Pride. We'll be at Bayfair."

• Aloha Poke Co. at 740 Hornblend St. is located near the corner of Hornblend Street and Mission Boulevard in Pacific Beach.

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