America’s Best Poke Is in the Most Unexpected California Town
This California town claims the title of the best-reviewed restaurant in the whole state.
California’s most popular poke restaurant can be found—wait for it—in the quiet mountain town of Big Bear. Actually, scratch that. The state’s most popular restaurant can be found in this alpine town.
Big Bear’s Tropicali is the best restaurant in California, according to the team at Yelp, which came to this conclusion by compiling data from visitor reviews and ratings over the last five years. According to that data, it’s also considered the best poke restaurant in the country. (Though it’s so much more than just a poke restaurant—but more on that later.)
On a weekend afternoon, lines at this fast-casual restaurant regularly snake around the entrance, past the stairs, out the front door, and around the corner. But, as anyone in line will tell you, it’s worth the wait.
So, how did an unassuming island-style restaurant serving wild-caught ahi tuna, lilikoi syrup over waffles, and jerk chicken come to arrive (and thrive) in a California mountain town?
Owners Michael Sterling Eaton and wife Sanoe Lake Eaton, born and raised in San Diego and Kauai, respectively, centered their lives and careers on water and action sports around the world—Lake Eaton as a professional surfer and model, Sterling Eaton as a surf filmmaker and photographer. “Our backgrounds have alway been rooted in surf and tropical destinations,” Sterling Eaton says. “We just found a love for cuisine and travel, and we always had a goal one day to own our own place.”
By 2011, they had two children and “needed to slow things down,” Sterling Eaton says. “We went from zero to a million, so that’s how we ended up in Big Bear. We looked for somewhere we could have a home base in a small town, with some quiet. We needed to find an incubator.”
“I wanted to be in nature,” Lake Eaton adds, “but if I needed to get surfing time in I could easily fly home to Hawaii.”
Sterling Eaton says this part was simple: “We drove up in one day and picked a house, next thing we were living there.”
The next part, not so much.
Their restaurant now known on Yelp, and across tourist recommendation engines everywhere, as Tropicali (with more than 2,100 reviews and a five-star average) began as Local, housed in a 100-square-foot former hot dog stand off the main road in Big Bear. “We wanted to represent the mountains meet Hawaiian culture,” says Sterling Eaton. But Local’s theme wasn’t fully grasped in town, with people assuming the spot was either truly just that—local, mountain eats—or a Hawaiian food stand. And neither was quite right.
Lake Eaton describes Local as “tropical California style,” which the couple took to their next, bigger venture, Tropicali.
“It’s a make-believe island,” is how Sterling Eaton describes the restaurant now. “We took nuances from Sanoe’s South Pacific and my California style, along with some of our travels to places like Tulum.”
“Tiki is a misappropriation of culture,” he continues, noting that the Tiki style as we often see it relies on cultural appropriation with escapist aesthetics. “We wanted to take those nuances of make-believe into creating our own island.”
Taking island food and “running it through a California lens,” Tropicali offers curated poke bowls and smoked meat dishes according to flavor profiles, each with a specifically formulated sauce perfect for that dish, like the Tikiyaki, with teriyaki barbecue chicken over rice with a special sauce, or the Pele Bowl, with wild-caught ahi tuna topped with cucumbers and sweet onions over rice and Lava Boss Sauce.
Tropicali’s team asks newcomers their flavor profiles to determine what they should try first. Do you like sweet? Salty? For spice-seekers, try the Rasta Bowl, with a jerk marinade imported from a farm in Jamaica, topped with Bob Gnarley Boss Sauce.
Or try out the Tiki Tortas, an island take on dessert with Belgian waffles topped with smoked meats. As for beverages, it can be tough to decide between the smoothie selection and tropical-inspired cold brews.
More than 2,100 Yelp reviews later, it’s clear Big Bear is finally grasping what Tropicali is all about. The mountain town that was once home to Olympic snowboarder Shaun White has embraced the restaurant, and its style, as “part of the fabric of traveling to Big Bear,” Sterling Eaton says. “It was definitely a surprise to some but we’ve become the locals’ go-to spot up here. It resonates with the outdoor sports kind of culture, I think.”
“There’s a lot of people looking to get back to those paradise feelings,” he adds. “Often people are already on vacation. We like to be the trampoline to send them even farther on their adventure.”
“It’s been everything and more,” says Lake Eaton of the move to Big Bear. “We’ve fallen in love with mountain living.”
So next time you’re near Big Bear and crave a taste of the tropics, you know where to go. Trust us, it’s worth the trip.