At 48 million, we stopped counting. On that brilliantly sunny Wednesday afternoon, my niece and I finally decided to relinquish our seats at Big Fin Poké’s long window counter, where we had spent the previous half-hour eating poké (rhymes with OK) and watching passersby on Westbrook’s Main Street, all the while jotting notes on a business card.
We must have looked ridiculous: two chopsticks in one hand and a pen in the other. But what we needed was a calculator.
Our goal was to figure out the total number of unique poké dishes someone could order from the fast-casual Hawaiian restaurant.
Thanks to a menu that features seven proteins, dozens of mix-ins, vegetables and crunch-enhancing toppings, it turns out that number is 3.2 billion, give or take a few. If you ate three meals a day at Big Fin Poké, it would take you more than 2 million years before you were forced to repeat a dish, and by that point, I suspect you’d have a serious case of poké burnout.
If you’re not familiar with one of the hottest international food trends of the past five years, poké is pretty easy to understand.
It is raw chunked or cubed fish (the Hawaiian word “poké” actually means “to cut crosswise into pieces”) that’s marinated and served with chopped vegetables and (often) rice. It’s the laugh-alike, walk-alike, Patty Duke cousin of Japanese chirashi sushi or Peruvian ceviche – just with better marketing.
Big Fin Poké’s owner Jimmy Liang first tasted the dish only a few years ago, but knew immediately that he wanted to introduce it to Maine. “We have a friend in California who made it for us and it blew my mind, opened my eyes to all the different flavors you could do with fish. Not like with sushi, where you’re just dipping it in soy and wasabi,” he said.
Liang, a Mainer whose family has operated Chinese restaurants like Scarborough’s Chia Sen for nearly 30 years, took his time before opening Big Fin Poké, waiting until he had first developed and workshopped a diverse catalog of sauce and marinade recipes, from yuzu citrus to Korean spicy gochu. “Every time I would go out to eat for the past couple of years, it was about taste testing. If I ate something I liked, I would go home and experiment to work out that flavor. Now all the sauces we use are my recipes,” he said.
If you’re overwhelmed by choice, Liang has also put together seven Big Fin Poké Favorite meals ($10.95 regular/$13.95 large) that can be ordered with rice, as a salad, or for extreme adventurers, coiled into a nori sheet and transformed into what he calls a “pokiritto,” in theory a cross between a gigantic maki sushi roll and a burrito.
In practice, it’s even less practical than it sounds. Big Fin Poké’s protein and mix-in portions are substantial: too large to fit comfortably inside a rice-and-seaweed package, even with the assistance of a plastic sushi rolling mat. Pokirittos wind up looking like untidy, unstable green Swiss roll cakes that must be swaddled in parchment paper just to hold their shape. They are also calamitously messy.
While poké may not yet work in a hand-held format, it is right at home in a bowl, whether sitting atop a paddle-flattened mound of slightly sticky sushi rice, or a heap of chopped romaine. Choose the former for a hearty meal, and the latter for a lighter option, which if the crowds are anything to go by, are quite popular with the yoga mat-toting set. But fair warning: Both can be more filling than they look.
Among the best of Big Fin’s pre-selected bowls are its spicy tuna with cucumbers, sweet onion and a punchy, peppery aioli that stands out best when incorporated into a poké salad. The yellowtail yuzu, made with chunks of rich, almost buttery fish, sweet pineapple, green onion and a floral, citrusy dressing, is the reverse, working best over short, fat grains of sushi rice.
By and large, Big Fin’s fish is high-quality and almost odor-free, just as any sushi-grade seafood ought to be. However, it is generally not local.
While a limited amount of fish comes from Maine suppliers like Harbor Fish Market, the majority of the restaurant’s supply comes from large corporate outfits out of New York and Massachusetts.
In almost any other circumstance, that would count as a cardinal sin, especially in a state with beautiful, world-class seafood. But Liang and his team serve raw and barely cooked fish. They do it in such volume that performing their own FDA-required food safety protocols (especially long-term freezing at ultra-low temperatures) would require space, equipment and human power that they do not have. Yet.
But that day may arrive soon, as Liang has plans to turn Big Fin Poké into a chain (another Greater Portland shop is in the works), and if that happens, it will be interesting to see if the restaurant gets in step with the local, seasonal ideology that has come to define contemporary Maine cuisine.
In the meantime, Big Fin already offers options beyond raw fish. There is gyudon (Japanese for “beef and rice bowl”), made with sliced, soy-and-sake-marinated brisket, cooked with onions and simmered until the meat pulls apart in fine, fluffy threads.
The beef bowls tend to be a little fatty – not necessarily a flaw – and as a result, work especially well when topped with extra helpings of chopped scallion and scarlet shreds of pickled ginger.
Perhaps the least appealing of the non-seafood proteins is the chicken, first marinated in garlic, onion powder and turmeric, then deep fried. While the flavor of the meat itself was decent, and the chicken cooked well, the heaviness of the chunks reminded my dinner guests of something from a mall food court. Only a thin membrane separates fast-casual from fast food, and it is important to avoid piercing it.
Which is not to say that Big Fin can’t manage a fryer. Its vegetarian poké is one of the best dishes on the Favorites menu and includes cubes of delicately fried tofu seasoned with miso, honey and mirin. Tossed with sliced cucumber, it feels light, yet substantial, and – owing to tiny black strands of mineral-rich hijiki seaweed – somehow still connected to the ocean.
As Liang makes plans for expansion, he and his wife and daughter, both of whom also work at the restaurant, continue with tweaks to make the Westbrook restaurant more inviting.
Already, they have given the space a vibrant makeover, hanging colorful, framed cut-paper collages and painting walls a vivid pink and shocking aqua that make the restaurant feel tropical, even in the middle of a Maine winter.
Notably, they are also debating adding a few more toppings, like mango, or perhaps renkon (fried lotus) chips. Personally, I’d find it hard to resist shards of toasty, crisp renkon in my bowl. On the other hand, even one extra topping would double the number of possible combinations of meals at Big Fin Poké – but really, what’s another 3.2 billion choices among friends?
Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at: