I went to Venice Beach in pursuit of some of LA's best poke, but it was Muscle Beach's hard bodies that showed me the proper way to enjoy this Hawaiian treat.
Within the sea of tourists and novelty T-shirts that is the Venice beach boardwalk, a small portion of land is devoted to checking out buff dudes get buffer. It's called Muscle Beach, and it's been a part of the Venice boardwalk since 1951. Though membership to Muscle Beach is not exclusive, the majority of people you'll find bench-pressing weights the size of a small toddler are men who look like they just walked out of the cover of a '90s romance novel. Think: young, chiseled, sweaty, and probably a fireman. Venice Beach has changed heavily over the years, but one thing is for sure: Muscle Beach is a mainstay. So are those extremely persistent aspiring musicians desperately pleading for you to buy their mixtapes. They're not going anywhere either.
Though I don't frequent Venice often (especially the boardwalk), I found myself eager to make the trip in order to dine at the first poke deli in Los Angeles, Poke Poke. In Hawaii, poke is a fairly common snack food that's essentially Ahi tuna tartare, seasoned and marinated in delicious soy sauce, spices, and onion. At Poke Poke, customization is a special feature most other Poke places don't offer. Meaning, one can add sauces and veggies such as avocado, sesame seeds, spicy mayo, macadamia nuts, chili oil, kale (of course), and more. Poke Poke boasts that they're the only poke eatery in Los Angeles that makes poke to-order.
Poke Poke's location on the boardwalk lies directly across from Muscle Beach, bringing a somewhat decadent dish to the boardwalk. Doing so is a startling contrast to the plethora of funnel cake, ice cream, pizza, and burgers that the area is far more inundated with. In fact, some might say this was a huge gamble. How many Midwestern tourists in need of taking a break from having to decide which novelty t-shirt of Stewie from Family Guy they should buy are going to want to wind down with a bowl of raw fish? Luckily, this was a gamble Poke Poke was willing to take. To make my first poke bowl a memorable one, I set out to eat it with a staple of the Venice community, the muscle man.
Not a lot of muscle men were out on this day, probably because of the extreme heat Los Angeles faces during this time of year (well, all year). However, I did manage to find Bill. Though Bill was not the 'roided out pile of bulging muscles I had in mind, he ended up being the perfect partner to try poke with. Bill has been living in Venice for over thirty years and, at 53 years old, he has been a member of Muscle Beach for over twenty years. He kindly ended his ab work out early to dine on tuna with me.
"I've been meaning to try this place, actually," he told me as we walked the short walk to Poke Poke, which is sandwiched by a Greek food stand and an espresso spot. "A lot of the guys who work out here go to this place [Poke Poke]."
Perhaps Poke Poke's placement was more strategic than happenstance, then. Tuna, like a lot of fish, is low in saturated fats and high in protein. It's the perfect food for body-builders. "You got to eat after a work out. Muscles need protein to make the whole thing worth it," said Bill. When it was our turn to order, I decided to go with a small order of the spicy poke, which is poke mixed with spicy mayo, sesame seeds, and chopped onions. Bill went with a large order of the Aloha (knowing that this meal was on me) which consisted of a light and sweet shoyu sauce, rice wine vinegar, and crushed red pepper. We both got it "Hawaiian style" meaning no rice, just a tub of raw fish.
Once we got our poke bowls, we grabbed chopsticks and went to town. Bill commented, "This is like a rare steak. It's lighter though." I asked him if that meant he liked it, "Oh yeah. Definitely." I enjoyed my spicy poke, too. The cubes of tuna were the perfect size, and I was surprised by how full I got from just a small bowl of it. Though Bill and I were very much enjoying it, I could see how this sort of meal is an acquired taste. We both commented on how fishy it tasted, because duh. A lot of people can't wrap their heads around the texture, knowing that it's raw meat that they're eating, no matter how much delicious mayo you splatter on it. We were very into it, however, and enough people in the area must be too. "I see this place doing well for itself," he said.
"You don't think it might be too expensive?" His large bowl of aloha tuna was $14.
"Venice is not what it used to be. Twenty years ago, this place would have failed. There's a lot of rich people coming in here now though. Once word gets out, money is no object to a lot of these people, he told me."
As we munched, Bill told me about his life, and how he used to restore furniture but is now looking to get into a different line of work. He tries to work out every day, but admits that he is not the ripped muscle man he once was. Flies continuously circled our food as we ate, which got us into a discussion about the importance of flies. Rather than be disgusted by them, Bill urged me to appreciate them and their contributions to our planet. The flies were becoming a metaphor for my feelings toward the entire Venice boardwalk.
We also discussed the hot button issue of allowing women to walk around Venice Beach topless, which Bill is very much in support of. At no point did it feel weird to be talking to a middle-aged man I didn't know about topless women while eating raw fish out of a plastic tub. In fact, it felt appropriate. This is what you do in Venice.
"Would you come back here?" I asked.
"Sure. Especially if someone else is paying for it."
After dining with Muscle Man Bill, I came to the conclusion that Poke Poke has found a nice home for itself. Not just nice, but at the end of the day, fitting. Even if the tourists never like it, the muscle men always will.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2015.