A poke bowl to-go from Crunchy Poke on Fore Street in Portland. Photo by Leslie Bridgers

Crunchy Poke was one of the first places I got takeout after the shutdown began just over a year ago.

Trying to figure out what to do with my newfound free time, I initially headed for hiking trails and public beaches only to learn that pretty much everyone was thinking the same thing.

So, where could I go to get away from crowds and feel like I was kind of doing something? The answer was any downtown, including Portland’s Old Port.

It was a surreal experience, seeing all the empty parking spaces and sidewalks on a weekend day. It seemed like everything was closed, but Crunchy Poke wasn’t and had COVID-safe protocols in place for quick and easy pickup at the Fore Street shop.

At that time, user-friendliness and reliability weren’t a given, so Crunchy Poke stood out and, for that reason, is a place that I’ve returned to many times since, for both pickup and delivery through 2DineIn (and it travels better than you might think).

The poke itself has also been consistent, in its freshness and flavor, with tons of options to make it as crunchy, creamy, veggie- or protein-packed as you’d like. There are 12 signature bowls with pre-selected ingredients, most featuring a primary protein such as ahi tuna, king crab or pork belly for $12, or Maine lobster for $15.

The build-your-own option starts at $9 for a base (white or quinoa brown rice, spring mix or rice noodles); an unlimited number of 18 “fill-ups,” including avocado, red cabbage, crab salad and mango; up to four sauces from a selection of nine, including wasabi mayo, yuzu ponzu and sweet teriyaki; and an unlimited number of toppings, from microgreens to coconut crunch. There are eight protein options for another $3 (salmon, shrimp, eel, etc.) and two – Maine lobster and scallop – for an additional $6.

Because there’s no difference in price between the pre-selected and personalized options, it’s just a matter of preference between getting as many of the exact ingredients you want versus not having to think too hard about it. I almost always choose the former, as the idea of unlimited ingredients from those selections feels like too good a deal to pass up – even though I never come close to taking advantage of it.

The online ordering process also makes customization easy, and the bowls I’ve gotten have always been ready to pick up in 15 minutes.

The last time I went, an unseasonably warm though still a bit biting weekend day, the Old Port had fewer available places to park and many more people on the sidewalks. I took the bowl away from the crowds and enjoyed it on a picnic table on the Western Prom, which was almost as empty as the Old Port on my visit that day last spring.

That was a similarly slightly windy day, what wouldn’t have been considered outdoor dining weather before the pandemic. I ate my bowl on a bench on Moulton Street, outside the Old Port Tavern, struggling to keep the bag and chopstick wrapper from flying away between bites.

Two people appeared at the bottom of Exchange Street, looking disoriented. I took them for out-of-towners who incorrectly assumed there would be something to do in downtown Portland. One of them pointed at me and yelled across the empty street.

“Poke?!” he said. I nodded, mouth full. “Where?” he asked. I pointed down Fore Street.

He thanked me and excitedly headed in the direction of his lunch, as if the trip was suddenly worth it. It was a bizarre bonding moment between strangers – one that never would have happened before the pandemic, or without Crunchy Poke.


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