Fish Out of Water: What's With Houston's Poke Obsession Anyway?

Lunchtime at Ono Poke usually means a line out the door.
Lunchtime at Ono Poke usually means a line out the door.
Photo by Troy Fields
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The night Tuan Tran debuted Moku Bar, a poke pop-up event in downtown Houston’s Conservatory, a line quickly formed at the counter. Sixty people. Seventy. An hour later, 100. Tran found himself overwhelmed, actually calling friends on the phone to come and help him and his two workers serve up the marinated ahi and rice bowls. It’s estimated he made somewhere around $4,000 in the course of four hours. This was less than a year ago.

Poke is a Hawaiian staple: raw fish marinated in soy sauce or sesame oil. But it appears to be in Houston to stay. The word itself means to slice, and as you’ll find in any online explainer this side of Bora Bora, it’s pronounced poh-kay, rhyming with mmkay, which is probably what some Californian entrepreneurs said when their business partners propositioned them to change the word’s spelling to poké as a coy marketing plan, thus cementing the mainland’s bastardization of Hawaiian culture forever more.

Iterations of the raw fish salad have been around in California for decades, but the newfound trend that includes everything from poke bowls to poke nachos to poke burgers has been having a major moment in cities such as New York and Chicago since 2015.

Just last year Eater even posited that poke might be America’s next Chipotle-scale fast-casual trend thanks to its appeal to both consumers and entrepreneurs: It’s healthy, easy to eat on the go, and extremely quick to make (even in build-your-own format), and has a forgiving start-up cost thanks to the need for only the most bare-bones kitchen. Foursquare data indicates that Hawaiian eateries have practically doubled in two years’ time, a growth rate that could mean more than 1,000 Hawaiian spots will have opened in America by 2020.

In Houston alone, Yelp currently shows more than nine pages of options for restaurants serving poke, from Kata Robata to Steak 48. A Yelp chat thread devoted to Houston’s poke scene notes random sightings of the dish, at Costco even — $15 a pound, various flavors.

“It’s basically just cheaper sushi,” a local chef recently told me, which may point to poke’s appeal. That all raises the question: Is it indeed just a trend or is poke here to stay? The Houston Press took a deep dive into four new poke operations to see just what all the fuss is about and where these proprietors see their businesses heading as steep competition pours into town from New York’s Pokéworks and California’s North Shore and one of Houston’s most anticipated newcomers, Seaside Poke.

Moku Bar’s Mady Bowl is a fan favorite with spicy salmon and salty shrimp chips.
Moku Bar’s Mady Bowl is a fan favorite with spicy salmon and salty shrimp chips.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

Moku Bar, 1010 Prairie. Suggested order: Mady’s Bowl ($9).

It’s a quiet day inside the beer hall where the Moku Bar counter resides, post-lunch, torrential rain coming down outside, and Tran takes a breather. He honed his chops at sushi restaurants in New Orleans and Houston and today runs the Casian King food trucks. He opened Moku Bar in late March, “because I saw all these other guys doing it.” He laughs.

“Actually, I was doing poke back in 2013. I went to Hawaii for a friend’s wedding and it was everywhere. Gas stations. In their version of Walmart, they have a sushi-bar-type setup in back and just a row of poke to choose from, like 40 types, tuna, mussels. Everything.” He pulls up an Instagram photo of his first marinated poke, which he served while working at Pho LN & Sushi Bar. Tuna in a margarita glass. No rice in sight. October 2013, the date reads.

Today Tran serves his poke over rice, quinoa or greens. There are a few people milling about near Moku Bar, but nothing like the typical lunch rush or late-night crush he’s used to on the weekends. “People come in at 2 a.m. and don’t really want raw fish,” Tran says, which is why his concept also includes tempura snacks and Spam musubi. He’s just added a chalkboard menu to his counter, which he hasn’t had up for the first few weeks of business, a period that has been a killer, he acknowledges.

“I’ll be honest. Right now it’s tough,” he says. Tran finds that one problem customers are having is that they don’t want to pay $13 or more for a bowl of poke, despite the fact that the very same people might lay down $15 for a sushi roll at a nearby restaurant, for what he says is the same quality of fish but a lot less portion-wise. The eatery has faced some stiff criticism online. Yelpers being Yelpers: Unless they stop being so cheap and the prices actually matches [sic] the size of the bowl, I won’t be coming back. “My biggest goal right now is education. Educating our staff, so they can tell the customer what we’re serving them.”

Tran ships in ahi daily from Hawaii, and actually pre-marinates his poke, which other shops consider a pretty big risk. It’s been a hit-or-miss decision for Tran, with food waste being one of the biggest challenges he’s facing. Still, he can build a bowl of poke in under one minute flat, and the flavor imparted by the marinade is, in my opinion, one of the reasons Moku Bar stands out among the competition. His top sellers include a truffle yellowtail bowl and a spicy salmon option, the Mady’s Bowl, which has these highly addictive shrimp crackers in it. He also lets customers build their own bowls as well, but the add-ons do add up quickly.

I ask Tran if he’d consider a poke food truck, but he’s not really into it.
“The great thing about a truck is it’s so small, and food cost is just around 15 percent. Here we’re at 30 percent. But with a truck, you have to be a chef and a mechanic. You can only hold so much food on board. It can get crazy.”

A brick-and-mortar Moku Bar is already being planned at an undisclosed location anyway. The upcoming location will function more as a tiki bar with a food menu, which is a good bent to have with so many poke restaurants and pop-ups — nearly a dozen will seemingly be in operation by the end of summer. Tran doesn’t see the competition between these new poke restaurants as cutthroat. Everyone is just focused on his own operation. “I mean, I’m friends with Ono. I’ve tasted their poke,” Tran says. “But if I see friends online talking about North Shore, I’m like, ‘C’mon, you’re not going to rep Houston?’”

Ono Poke’s spicy yellowtail bowl delivers the heat with a light and fiery shoyu sauce.
Ono Poke’s spicy yellowtail bowl delivers the heat with a light and fiery shoyu sauce.
Photo by Troy Fields

Ono Poke, 607 Richmond. Suggested order: Spicy yellowtail ($11.95 for large), and don’t skimp on the complimentary cucumber water.

“Honestly, I was a dancer before this,” Patrick Lam says of life before running Ono Poke. Along with partners Jim Nguyen and Frederic Lam (Patrick’s cousin), he debuted Ono in December 2016. It was the first poke-centric eatery to officially open in Houston.

Lam himself basically grew up in a restaurant, though. His family runs Lambo on Westheimer. But even so, opening a restaurant from the ground up has been a learning process.

He took a few cues from his personal favorite, LA’s Pokinometry. To create the menu, Lam reached out to friends in the industry and actually just ended up researching sauces on the Internet. Colleagues at both Wokker Texas Ranger and Kata Robata have helped him along the way, trying to figure out recipes and how to break down fish.

“I don’t have a problem asking for help,” he says. “I don’t consider myself a chef.”

But he is a savvy entrepreneur, one who managed to open up shop before any other poke restaurant in town with just a limited run of pop-ups beforehand. Lines are typically out the door. Today Ono has 26 employees, four of whom are on full-time. Quite a feat for the small operation, which is rather ideally placed, sharing a parking lot with a neighboring gym in Montrose. 

“Most people like to come in after they exercise,” Lam says. “We get a lot of trainers in here with their clients. It’s feel-good food but not heavy. Unless you get too much spicy mayonnaise and hot Cheetos.”
Turns out the bestseller is salmon slathered in spicy mayo with hot Cheetos. The crunchy, spicy topping has been a fad in area sushi restaurants for some time.

“I kind of feel bad for sushi restaurants,” Lam says, “because we’re serving quality fish faster and more affordably."

Ono breaks down about 300 pounds of sushi-grade fish a day. Sourced via different purveyors, including “a guy in Hawaii,” the fish arrives filleted, so it’s easier for staff to prepare it. Ono decided against pre-marinating the poke to cut down on the amount of food waste, and because of its emphasis on build-your-own options.
Lam also did extensive research and discovered that assembly-line-style poke shops were slower than order-at-the-counter operations because people want to know what everything is. “They just ask questions the whole time and really slow down the process.”

At Ono, customers order at the register, either selecting signature poke bowls or creating their own. A few wacky orders occasionally roll through: “One time somebody asked if we could cook their salmon, but we don’t have a way to do that here. A few people have ordered all the sauces together, which is kind of gross too.”
For his vision of Ono’s future, Lam notes that his original concept was actually for shaved ice and poke, side by side, and that is likely going to happen at a future location. Ono is also considering adding shaved ice for summertime at its Montrose location, and potentially a photo booth area as well.

Pokéology’s Jason Liao brings a sushi chef-driven approach to poke with a delicate hamachi and apple bowl.
Pokéology’s Jason Liao brings a sushi chef-driven approach to poke with a delicate hamachi and apple bowl.
Photo by Troy Fields

Pokéology, 5555 Morningside (inside Doc Holliday’s). Suggested order: Applemachi ($12 for large) with hamachi, white shoyu, green apple, sesame and green onion.

“It’s always been about the bigger picture from the get-go,” chef Jason Liao of Pokéology says.

Liao, who comes from a sushi background, gained a large following during his days at his own restaurant, Preview, in Sugar Land, which shuttered with plans to reopen in Midtown when the economy tanked and investors backed out. Liao then landed at Aka, where he prepared a nightly omakase for patrons. “It got me to work quick again. In a way, I think it prepared me for poke,” even though his mentors told him he’d be wasting his talent.

When he opened Pokéology in Doc Holliday’s in early 2017, the line stretched around the block. “I was scared, but I couldn’t show it.”

It’s lunchtime midweek when I visit, and two women pushing strollers mosey into the bar and up to the Pokéology counter. The bartender watches from across the room, and finally sits back down behind the bar. Liao hobbles out into the bar with my bowl of fresh apple himachi poke. He’s been practicing martial arts since he was nine, training for years with the same teacher, though on this day he’s in a cast and on crutches, having recently landed on his ankle wrong while sparring with a fellow student. “Two-hundred-pound guy,” he says.

He tells me that poke is a good entryway for young entrepreneurs wanting to get into the fast-casual realm. “It’s very simple to make. Anybody who knows how to set up a line can do it. But I’m coming from a totally different standpoint,” he says. “Our point of reference is different. We’re offering a different product.”

Liao uses a high grade of himachi for his signature Applemachi poke. It melts away, butter-like, on the tongue. “It’s a product that’s farmed and bled a certain way to maintain the texture,” he says. The fish is killed using the ike jime method, which delays rigor mortis in the body to ensure a better texture.
“Essentially, the less the fish hurts, the tastier it is, and that’s the idea behind it.” This may just be the best poke bowl in town.

“In the poke game, I know what everybody’s using and not using because my hand has been in there for so long — everybody’s using similar purveyors,” Liao says. It’s possible that his experience as a sushi chef does give him an edge with seafood purveyors. “They come to me with a lot of stuff. For me, it’s all about just let the product speak for itself.”

Liao has ten people on his staff, and together they serve more than 200 bowls a day. Between salmon and tuna alone, he orders more than 100 pounds of fish a day. Pretty crazy, considering that Pokéology has a kitchen about the size of an SUV’s interior. That means prep is an all-day affair, which can be maddening during a rush. “There’s no storage here. No space for extra prep. So we have to do it in stages. If I weren’t seasoned at this point, it wouldn’t work.”

Liao is already preparing to open a brick-and-mortar in the Heights by the end of summer, one with a bigger kitchen space that has room to do cooked appetizers as well.

“I’m a chef,” he says. “I get bored.”

Hawaiian Poke Co. in Spring has sashimi-grade ahi shipped in daily from Hawaii.
Hawaiian Poke Co. in Spring has sashimi-grade ahi shipped in daily from Hawaii.
Photo by Troy Fields

Hawaiian Poke Co., 4334 FM 2920, Suite 100, Spring. Suggested order: Hawaiian poke ($14.99 for large) with ahi, shoyu, sesame oil, sweet white and green onion, sesame seed, Hawaiian salt, togarashi, wakame and furikake.

Finally, I find myself somewhere on a particularly long stretch of highway in Spring, just off Interstate 45, amid the carwashes and bubble tea shops and guys booming down the hot-tar strip on motorbikes. It’s out here you’ll find a small tropical oasis called Howie’s Tiki. In the back, a new restaurant, Hawaiian Poke Co., has taken over the kitchen.

“I liked the idea from the get-go,” says proprietor Mark Voros. He worked Tommy Bahamas for many years in The Woodlands, and if his menu is any indication, the people of Spring are into legit tiki. We talk of Trader Vic’s and Beachbum Berry and the Navy Grog (Sinatra’s favorite tiki drink). Voros is from Southern California, “so I grew up with poke,” he says.

When Anthony Grey and chef Charles Eggleston approached him about running a poke shop out of the tiki bar, he was delighted. Now the bar is filling up during the day with lunch crowds, some of whom have also taken to returning in the evening, when the lights are dimmed and the drinks are set on fire.

Hawaiian Poke Co. actually differs quite a bit from other poke operations back inside the Loop, with a menu that also includes bar snacks — burgers, crab fries, musubi. There’s a poke “roll,” similar to a lobster roll, and poke fries. But it’s here where you just might find the closest iteration to authentic Hawaiian poke in Houston. Ahi chopped into larger chunks, served with traditional Hawaiian shoyu, kukkui nuts and spice notes taken from the big island as well. It’s simple and delicious. From far away, the fish rather looks like watermelon.

“That’s the Hawaiian way,” Grey says.

The duo have bigeye tuna shipped in daily, about 200 pounds a week, a sashimi-grade ahi caught by Hawaiian fishermen.

“People get so used to firm, hard, chemically treated tuna,” Grey says, noting that such ubiquitous block-form, packaged fish, which many restaurants rely on, does nothing to aid the world’s sustainable fishing. “When they try the real thing, sometimes they don’t like it. Because they aren’t used to the texture. I like to call it tuna gummy bears.”

Indeed, it is very gummy bear, certain to conjure visions of the nerdy bus rider at the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, offering up a treat to Mr. Rooney, with hand extended: They’re nice and warm; they’ve been in my pocket all day.

“I’ve visited every island,” Grey says. “I have friends there. We only source ahi from there. That’s important to us.”

Also important to them? Bringing the poke experience to even more customers. The duo already have their eyes on a brick-and-mortar space in Spring as well.

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