When I heard that Baton Rouge was getting its own pokè restaurant, my ears perked up. First and most importantly, because I love pokè, and second, because I was happy to see someone taking advantage of Baton Rouge’s growing, adventurous culinary base. It’s always great to see a restaurant take a risk, execute its concept well and have that work pay off. And in a shopping center flanked by a historic donut shop, a generational seafood joint, a popular neighborhood pizza stop and a craft beer bar, among others, one could certainly say that Southfin Southern Pokè was taking a risk with this unique concept. But from my previous lunch visits when the restaurant was first opening, to subsequent take-out dinners, to my recent visit for this article, it is clear that Southfin is here to stay.
Approaching the restaurant, it’s easy to see what the folks over at City Pork had in mind when they created Southfin Southern Pokè. The ocean-blue banner, fin logo and surfboard casually parked outside entrance of the restaurant all signal to customers that they are about to enjoy a fresh, ocean-inspired meal. The bright, clean interior and island-focused décor further enforce this expectation and bring a whole new vibe to the former Truly Free Deli & Bakery space in the Southdowns Shopping Center.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of pokè, you may have seen something similar at Japanese restaurants around town that sometimes offer salads composed of various types of raw fish and vegetables, tethered together most often by a sesame-soy-based dressing. However, the pokè offered by Southfin draws its roots from Hawaii, and the popularity that the dish enjoys in the Aloha state. At its base, pokè, translated to “chunk” in Hawaiian, is typically comprised of cubes of raw fish or other seafood, combined with various types of vegetables, seasonings and dressings. This combination is most classically served over white rice but, like the proteins offered by Southfin (including chicken and tempeh), you’ll find various options to choose from.
Customers will be familiar with the highly efficient assembly-line creation of their pokè bowls as it mirrors the method utilized by fast-casual restaurants like Lit Pizza, Zippy’s and Izzo’s. The ordering process at Southfin is broken down into each bowl’s five components: the base, the protein, the toppings, the sauce and the garnishes. Making each one of these decisions is truly an adventure in contrasting textures and flavors. However, it’s worth putting some thought into those decisions because, as appetizing as many of the options are, it is fairly easy to lose sight of the overall picture and create a clashing bowl if you’re not careful. For those not as adventurous, Southfin also offers six pre-made bowls that seek to do the heavy lifting for you—which you are free to further customize if the spirit moves you. All you have to do is pick your base of purple rice, mixed greens, white rice or gluten-free noodles.
On my visit, I chose the Tiki Combo bowl with purple rice, or as I’ve come to call it, the “I can’t make up my mind so I’ll get the one that has the most stuff in it” bowl. I also ordered the Wasabi Gras bowl with gluten-free, Asian sweet potato noodles. The individual ingredients in each bowl are too numerous to recount here, but were obviously chosen to work harmoniously together. The most critical part of a pokè bowl is the freshness and quality of the fish. Obviously, the fresher, the better. If the fish is of even slightly sub-par quality, its “fishy taste” will easily overpower all of the bowl’s other components. In both bowls, it was clear that the fish was of the highest quality. Indeed, when fish is this fresh, the only difference that you can really discern between the tuna and the salmon is one of texture. The lean tuna remains a bit firmer, while the fat from the salmon lends it a more tender texture.
With so many different flavors in the Tiki Combo bowl, no two bites were identical. Some bites were accentuated by a sweet pop from pineapple, some by crunch from red cabbage and fried shallots, others by acidic heat from pickled jalapeno cooled by cucumber, avocado and seaweed. The contrasting textures and flavors were made cohesive by the combination of shoyu (a soy, ginger and sesame dressing) and spicy mayo.
The Wasabi Gras was a similar experience of flavors but was differentiated by the crunch of wasabi peas, the sweetness of a wasabi honey mayo and the cut of pickled ginger. I would have liked to taste more of a wasabi pop from the wasabi peas and mayo, but I did enjoy the way the pickled ginger was able to brighten the bowl. With as busy as the Tiki is, in the future I think I will add some of the pickled ginger to make the flavors really shine. The rice in the Tiki was able to soak up the dressing, whereas the noodles in the Wasabi Gras left a pool of dressing by the end. However, I truly enjoyed the change of pace the noodles brought to the bowl. The strength of both of these bowls lies in their combating flavors and textures and the individual experience they attribute to each individual bite.
To wash it down, I ordered one of Southfin’s Hawaiian Margaritas. The margarita’s bright blue color, attributed to Blue Curaçao, is another reminder of the restaurant’s island theme. The drink came in an individual, pre-mixed bottle and had tequila, Blue Curaçao, lemon, lime and pineapple juice. Initially, I worried that the addition of pineapple juice in a drink that can sometimes already be overly sweet would be overkill. But the solid tequila kick helped to balance any over-sweetening, and the pineapple helped to keep things interesting.
Southfin adds a unique, fast, and healthy lunch or dinner option to the city’s growing restaurant scene. Its creative flavor combinations and high quality ingredients are sure to gain a steadfast following and remain popular among its already established fan base. If you have not already done so, I highly recommend trying this little piece of Hawaiian culture in the heart of Baton Rouge.
Photos by Kristine Stone.