I loved the concept but worried about the location.
AA Poke along Coliseum Boulevard offered a modern, fresh take on fast food I think would be a hit in a food court or a little spot downtown. But it is located in a former Subway space in a strip of stores across from Northcrest Plaza and doesn't really stand out.
But the food sure did.
Much like its predecessor, AA is a fast-casual place where you make your way along a counter choosing fresh ingredients to make whatever dish you select. But instead of foot-long subs, the choices are rice bowls, sushi rolls, salads and sushi burritos.
Poke, of course, is the specialty, and AA offers nine varieties of fish – salmon, tuna and yellowtail, and marinated and spicy variations of each. Cooked shrimp, chicken, beef and tofu are also options.
Each dish can be ordered with two scoops of protein for $9.95 or three scoops for $11.95. More protein can be added for an extra $3.
Next come the “mix-ins” of vegetables and herbs. Avocado is also offered but requires an additional $2. Then it is on to “toppings,” such as crunchy tempura bits, wasabi, onions, ginger and fish roe.
The final step is the “flavor,” where you choose sauce and/or garnishes – ponzu, yuzu, eel sauce, sriracha and spicy or wasabi mayo. There is also a prepared mix of sauce called the AA Poke Special that was slightly spicy, with a mix of soy-type umami flavor and subtle sweetness.
AA Poke also offers four prepared poke variations – Hawaiian, Veggie, Salmon Lover and Tuna Lover – you can choose without having to go through the assembly line. The process is simple and seamless, and the people manning the counter were getting dishes out quickly.
There was nary an issue with the poke. All of the plain raw fish was fresh, clean and tasty, and the marinated had just the right amount of soy, sesame and seasonings so the delicate fish was not overpowered. The spicy versions, however, were not spicy enough, so don't be scared to try them if you are sensitive to spice.
My favorite offering was the traditional tuna poke rice bowl. I chose white rice instead of brown and went with the three-scoop option, which is what I would do for everything from now on, as the two-scoop dishes I tried really could have used more poke.
The only mistake I made with this bowl was the same one I have made over the years at buffets and those pay-by-the-weight frozen yogurt places. The toppings looked so good I didn't edit myself and ended up with a gargantuan too-busy bowl.
The crispy seaweed strands and fried onions were must-adds for texture, but I should have said no to the red onions and cherry tomatoes, which had no business in a rice bowl. That rice was perfect, too – a little sticky with a spot-on texture.
No matter what bowl or salad you choose, ask for the crab salad topping. Actually, get as much of it as they will let you, because it was creamy, sweet and delicious.
My brown rice bowl had spicy yellowtail, and I loved the contrast between it and the tuna. It was less firm, but its flavor was quite nice. The brown rice was not as sticky as the white, but was perfectly cooked and enjoyable.
The salad was an OK choice, and I constructed it differently to avoid the overkill issues I had initially. I chose the chicken with not much expectation but was surprised at how tender and moist the little bits were. Those who don't care for raw fish have a place here.
The beef followed suit. I had it in bowl form, and it was heavily sauced and had a familiar sweet, soy flavor. It was also joined by a plethora of sautéed onions which were nice additions. The meat was a little fatty for my liking but not a bad option.
Sushi rolls were a bad option, which was surprising given the plethora of ingredients AA Poke had to use. The staple California roll did not require many of those ingredients, but it was small, with not nearly enough filling, and the rice did not work well because the roll crumbled apart rather easily.
In addition to not being the right consistency, the rice was not proper sushi rice and was pretty bland, which made the Boston rolls – shrimp, cucumber and avocado – downright boring given there was no seasoning on those either.
The sushi burrito was a much better choice. It was basically a giant roll with nori as its wrapping instead of a tortilla. Since I could choose my own ingredients, like the bowls and salad, and went with the three-scoop protein, there was no shortage of tasty fillings here.
My spicy salmon burrito was wrapped tightly, and I found it kind of fun to eat a giant roll that required two hands to properly engorge. I also asked for a variety of sauces in cups on the side so I could dip away in an effort to find the right mix.
I used yuzu and eel sauce in about everything I had because I love the fragrant citrus burst of the yuzu and the salty-sweet favor of the eel. I think AA would do itself a favor to post suggested sauce combos to eliminate the trial and error.
AA Poke also offered pork gyoza, shrimp shumai dumplings and edamame as appetizers. The gyoza had a tasty ground filling, but the skin was tacky and was steamed too long, so it was mushy on the palate. The edamame were a bit al dente for my liking as an appetizer, but I did add the immature, green soybeans to some of my bowls because I enjoyed the little snap they added.
AA Poke was steadily busy during my visits and saw more than one regular who was asked as they entered whether they wanted their usual choice. I am not sure I will ever be that predictable, but I think I might be somewhat of a regular there, too.
So I guess I don't have to worry about the location after all.
Restaurant: AA Poke
Address: 700 E. Coliseum Blvd.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Gyoza ($3.95), edamame ($2.50), California roll ($4.50), Boston roll ($4.50)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: ★ (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Out of a possible five