Mainland Poke Shop and me were probably a match made in heaven. The restaurant fulfilled everything I wanted in a vibrant, healthy(-ish) lunch experience in a neighbourhood that felt very Los Angeles, and I walked in with no pre-conceived notions about poke or reservations about it being sold as fast-casual. More importantly, I was very happy with my order and would go back regularly if possible.
In preparation for my recent trip to visit friends in LA, Chipotle-like poke places came up in my dining research as an emerging LA trend. There is poke here, but if a trend, something new to me, and most at home in warm weather, I decided to get my feet wet while in LA. While a fast-casual restaurant might seem like a less than desirable place to explore the joys of raw fish salad, poke’s regular inclusion in a simple Hawaiian plate lunch told me that I didn’t need Masa-level execution to enjoy it. Many of the recommended places are in Pasadena, which wasn’t going to work for this New Yorker taking the bus on that particular day. Mainland Poke Shop, the most bougie on the list, was in close proximity to my afternoon destination of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (a 20 minute walk). Again, given I had nothing to compare it to, its location (and thus clientele and prices) among the boutiques of West 3rd Street and proximity to the shopping and tourists of The Grove didn’t bother me. Vacation Rhianna doesn’t worry about higher costs. And authenticity didn’t concern either of us.
Luckily, when I walked in I was the only customer needing help, so the boy behind the counter gave me a rundown of the menu and options with some patience. He suggested the small size was more of a snack, so I chose large for my lunch. At that size, I could have my choice of three fish and any or all of the toppings and sauces. On a base of white rice and kale, I got ahi tuna, salmon, and octopus with almost everything else: avocado, cucumbers, scallions, seaweed salad, edamame, pickled ginger, tobiko, furikakke, sea salt, and shoyu. I got wasabi cream on the side for dipping.
After being presented with my high and densely packed bowl, my obvious question was “So, do I just take chopsticks and mix it all up?” I had visions of the bowl’s contents going everywhere because there clearly was no room to mix. Any attempt to get that tobiko on top to dance with the rice at the bottom seemed unlikely.
“No” he replied, “Think of it like a seven-layer dip. I suggest using a fork. Try to make some room on the side and then work your fork downward to get a little bit of everything.”
Revelation. That method worked perfectly and enabled Vacation Rhianna to eat the bowl without making a mess. And because the layers stay intact, you actually taste all the components clearly; it doesn’t become a mess of lost or overpowering flavours. I did notice that as he was making my bowl, he stopped to ask me what shoyu I wanted (spicy or regular) after adding the fish, which came after the base. This allowed for the salty shoyu to settle into the rice and fish, seasoning both well. I think if it was added at the end, too much would be soaked up by the veg. Traditional poke is marinated, so while at Mainland it isn’t, they are still aware of a more optimal time to season. Everything tasted fresh, and all textures acted as hoped for with the exception of the too-soft avocado. The pops of flavour I appreciated the most were the tobiko, sea salt, and seaweed salad. The fish seemed totally fine to me, the tuna and salmon firm enough and the octopus enjoyably chewy. I liked the contrast of the warm rice, but I’ve read comments suggesting that’s not kosher when it comes to poke. The wasabi cream was excellent, especially when I coated the tines of my fork with it before digging in to create a mouthful. I would have found the bowl too rich if it had been added directly.
With tip and a bottle of water, I think I paid $16 and change. Highway robbery? Whatever, it was good, and I would/want to go back. Or, perhaps next visit I’ll head out to Pasadena to try one of the cheaper places that comes more highly recommended. That might pair better with Vacation Rhianna’s willingness to enjoy the $1.75 views provided by LA Metro.