Not too long ago, Fins Poke Fusion was an all-you-can-eat sushi bar called Sushi Zone. Even if you didn't know this, it's going to be obvious. The bar counter is still there, as are the stools, the old furniture and the waist-high cold display case over which you would've toasted the sushi chef with a frosty glass of Kirin if you'd been here a few months ago.
I'd never been to Sushi Zone, but as I ate my poke bowl in Fins' empty dining room on a Sunday afternoon, I noticed at least half of the people who walked up to the door hesitated when they saw the new menu board behind the hostess podium.
"Is this still a sushi place?" one lady asked.
"No, we serve poke now," the cashier replied. "Would you like a sample?"
Before he could reach the tiny metal trough next to the register where the samples were stored, the customer politely declined and went on her way. Did she not know that poke was the hottest food trend to hit our county since ice-cream-stuffed doughnuts? Or was this Hawaiian delicacy of raw, marinated, cubed fish still too new for the parts of America that only embraced sushi some 30 years ago--a.k.a. South County?
A few customers did stay. And some, like me, came expressly for the poke. As with all new poke joints, comparisons to Anaheim's Pokinometry--OC's undisputed poke king--are inevitable. Fins aims for the same young, mostly Asian subset of sushi consumer who has now moved on to poke bowls for a raw-fish fix.
Sometime during our meal, the restaurant owner came by to check on me. I asked about the place. He confirmed he's one of the original partners of Sushi Zone; he switched to this concept because the margins on all-you-can-eat sushi were too razor-thin. He's not just gambling the house on poke; he's also hedging his bet on Korean tacos à la Kogi, including one featuring a soft corn tortilla that cradles a wad of even softer bulgogi perfumed with the requisite sesame-oil-and-sugar sweetness of Korean barbecue. He also makes a taco with spicy chicken and another with shrimp tempura. All are good, each taco topped with shredded cabbage and salsa, and dripping with a sauce that's somewhere between Thousand Island and Asian ginger dressing. But the white fish taco is particularly exemplary--its delicate fingers of fish encased in an ethereal tempura batter so light it melts.
For something more substantial, he piles the same taco proteins onto rice bowls. A favorite of mine is the spicy chicken: chopped squares of red-tinged meat paired with avocados, sweet pickled celery and cucumbers over a hill of warm rice moistened by a sauce that has hints of gochujang.
As a side order, a generous basket of still-crisp and squeaky flash-fried tempura green beans for $3 is a good choice, as well as a recent menu addition of jalapeño poppers (which didn't actually use jalapeños at all, but rather a more slender, subtler chile--most likely shishito) deep-fried in batter, splayed open, stuffed with Japanese mayo-dressed imitation crab, then broiled to a golden brown. The latter is a thoughtful, carefully made appetizer deserving of a better name than the one it shares with the gut bombs Jack in the Box sells for about the same price. In the coming weeks, Fins will also start offering unagi sandwiches--something I've never seen even Kogi or Pokinometry attempt.
But the reason you should go now is the poke. Unlike Pokinometry, you order it off the menu, not in an assembly line. You need only decide on the base (salad greens, seasoned sushi rice or brown rice), the fish (salmon, tuna, or both for an additional surcharge), and the sauce (a creamy spicy mayo, a house ponzu blend, or a sesame soy). The soft drinks are dispensed from self-serve fountains in what used to be an employees-only area. And though there's a dollar surcharge for virtually every add-on, from avocado to octopus, each bowl is generously constructed with artisan care behind the sushi bar by the owner and his assistant.
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Still, why is poke such a tough sell here? Are people in South County just used to what they're used to? That same afternoon of my first visit, the owner took it upon himself to get people to try it. I saw him walk across the parking lot to approach a pair of women headed to the gym next door, a sample in his outstretched hand. They smiled and waved him off.
"Maybe next time," they told him. Undeterred, he marched into his restaurant, then came back out with two of his employees. They put up a tent and unfurled a huge banner that read, "Free Samples." I hope this review will do a better job in helping him get the word out.
Fins Poke Fusion, 28251 Marguerite Pkwy., Ste. A, Mission Viejo, (949) 542-7466; www.finspokefusion.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 4-9 p.m. Poke bowls, $8.95-$11.95. No alcohol.