From the beginning, it was clear to Jon Alexis that the poke trend was never going to last. As local shops and California-based chains alike made their way into DFW, the longtime owner of TJ’s Seafood saw that the mediocre quality of these raw fish bowls made the rash of poke bowl chains that infiltrated the city over the past few years unsustainable.
“We knew that garbage poke was never going to last as a fad,” Alexis says. “But good poke is always going to be appealing. Poke checks so many boxes for what diners want today, and we knew that by doing it well, it would survive the short life cycle of the poke trend.” Thus Malibu Poke, Eater Dallas’s 2018 casual restaurant of the year, was born, and it was an instant hit.
That attention to detail, and diners’ continuing obsession with healthy meals that are quick to eat and easy to customize, have resulted in much more rapid growth for Malibu Poke than Alexis and his investors originally intended. The first opened in Dallas in September of 2017, and it didn’t happen quickly. “We ran into all of the unsexy parts of running a restaurant. Paperwork, landlords, another restaurateur found out they had first right of refusal on the space right before we were about to start,” Alexis says. “It was just a bunch of crazy nonsense.”
Not long after the first Dallas location of Malibu Poke opened in Oak Lawn, the “world’s most incredible location,” according to Alexis, became available in Downtown Austin’s Seaholm District. “It’s a little easier to expand when you have a fan base,” Alexis says. “We had customers in Austin who were really excited to eat at Malibu Poke on day one. It’s easy to open three restaurants in 18 months when people are that excited. Otherwise we would’ve run out of money really quickly.”
The third outpost, at McKinney and Olive in Uptown Dallas, opened in spring 2019. This rapid clip of expansion is especially surprising considering Alexis’s first restaurant, TJ’s Seafood, expanded gradually, and only after earning a truly devoted crowd of regulars. Long before Malibu Poke was even a thought, Alexis’s family purchased the original Preston Hollow location in 1999, and he worked in the restaurant before buying the restaurant from his parents. A second location opened in Highland Park in 2012, and in 2014, the original TJ’s Seafood moved to a bigger, more modern home in Preston Royal Village.
After running two full-service restaurants (and their accompanying fish markets), Alexis found operating Malibu Poke to be a completely different experience. “Quick-service restaurants are cool in that they allow us to just focus on the the things that matter,” he says. “When I walk into Malibu, all I care about is that the food comes out fast, it’s really fresh, and the space is clean and hospitable. It’s much more focused, and there are fewer variables.”
The business model also offered Alexis a significant advantage when it came to one of the restaurant industry’s most pervasive problems: staffing. As restaurants in Dallas and beyond struggle to hire qualified staff, Alexis has the ability to pull workers from one of his other four restaurants in Dallas. “I see the same people multiple times a day in different restaurants. My AM prep cook at Malibu Poke is my lead line cook at TJ’s,” Alexis says. “Everybody in the restaurant business has three jobs, and everyone wants to work 100 hours a week. We can’t give people 100 hour weeks with just one restaurant, but with three we can. I’m sharing our staff amongst our managers, not other restaurateurs, and that gives us flexibility.”
And then, of course, there is the poke. Using impossibly fresh fish sourced from top-notch purveyors and recipes created by James Beard Award-nominated chef Matt McCallister, Malibu Poke’s bowls go far beyond the traditional ahi tuna poke dressed in soy. Chunks of hamachi are tossed in bonito aioli or coconut curry sauce; cooked shrimp is dressed in tropical chimichurri; vegan tofu bowls are slathered in wasabi ponzu.
And, as of a few months ago, there is chicken. It’s cooked, of course, and served in the same style as the raw fish. The addition of chicken to the menu was a result of customer demand, though Alexis had been trying to figure out how to prepare raw fish and raw chicken safely in the restaurant’s small kitchen. “People were asking us for chicken, and we found a way to do a completely organic chicken that we felt was the same quality as the fish,” Alexis says. “But we had to be really careful, and have our operations dialed into a point where I had really trusted staff who knew how to handle all of the ingredients safely.”
Weirdly, though, the most important menu innovation since Malibu Poke’s debut has been the addition of a “medium” sized bowl. Originally, there were only two options on offer — small and large — neither of which really hit the mark for the perfect sized lunch. Thus, the medium, which combines the amount of fish in a large bowl with the amount of rice in a small bowl, was born. “Everyone congratulated us when we added it, saying it was such a smart idea,” Alexis says. “But no, I’m an idiot. A smart person would’ve put it on the menu from day one.”
Self-deprecation aside, this obsessive attention to detail and quality is why Malibu Poke continues to thrive, even as poke shops across the city close their doors. Even though Malibu Poke is, inherently, a fast-casual restaurant, both the vibe and the price point are a little more upscale than the typical quick lunch spot. There’s nice glasses of wine, rose gold tableware, and glass bowls instead of plastic. It’s intended to feel more like a sit-down restaurant than a quick place to grab a bowl of raw fish.
Now that Malibu Poke is on solid footing, Alexis and his team are looking to dial in their operations further, even as they field offers from landlords and property developers to open additional locations of Malibu Poke. “If a landlord isn’t giving us what we need to make Malibu Poke successful, we don’t have to say yes,” he says. “Landlords are difficult, and we want to grow because we want to, not because we have to do it to survive.”
Still, he isn’t ruling out the idea of future Malibu Poke locations. “To do the quality that we want, we can’t put a Malibu Poke on every corner. We don’t want to grow that fast or big,” he says. “Right now, there are more neighborhoods that would like a Malibu Poke than there are neighborhoods that have one. Until we run out of people asking for one in their neighborhood, I think we’re still good.”
This is the third in a series of occasional features on Eater’s 2018 Eater Awards winners. Stay tuned for the next installment.