A couple of years ago, I remember paying a visit to Lincoln Bar on Washington Avenue with a friend in search of a poke pop-up advertised on Facebook. After a few minutes, it became clear from the crowds (swarming both the dine-in seating and the to-go window) and the haphazard service that the place would likely run out of food before we could be served. Cut to 2017, and the concept behind that and several other pop-ups has been transformed into a sleek brick-and-mortar in the heart of EaDo.
The polished, four-month-old storefront, bearing the letters SeaSide Poke inscribed across a glossy blue, pufferfish-shaped sign, signals like a beacon in the middle of EaDo: Change is coming. Located next to swanky gastropub Chapman & Kirby, SeaSide has helped lead the charge of new business coming into the neighborhood.
Founded by co-owners Alex Boquiren, Vu Bui, Juan Cao and Kristy Nguyen, SeaSide Poke is an instagrammer’s dream, with clean white tiling, miniature succulents terrariums and a sprawling art installation along one wall featuring pufferfish cutouts of Houston-centric prints. On the opposite wall, oversize scrolls of brown paper serve as functional art, displaying the menu ingredients. The brains behind the food concept at SeaSide include culinary director and chef Tai Nguyen of Uchi and Soma Sushi, and executive chef Vuthy Srey of Aka and MF Sushi.
Poke (pronounced “poh-keh”) means “to cut” or “slice” in Hawaiian. Traditionally poke is a simple dish, thought by some to have originated among fishers who seasoned their cut-offs for a snack. The earliest versions of poke might have included chunks of yellowfin tuna marinated in soy sauce, green onion, limu (a type of Hawaiian seaweed), raw diced onion and crushed kukui nut (candlenut).
Fittingly, the “Classic” signature bowl at SeaSide is a simple combination of shoyu, shallot, garlic and onion as the base. At most modern poke eateries, however, topping and marinade options explode beyond the basics. SeaSide elevates toppings with a Chipotle-style bar with items such as vibrant slices of watermelon radish, fat and glossy edamame beans and freshly mashed avocado, all sourced from local farms Moonflower, Plant It Forward and Covey Rise Farms.
Upon your first visit to SeaSide, they’ll recommend that you try one of the signature bowls first. Choosing from the menu of chef-crafted combinations is a less overwhelming way to ease into the fray of permutations. There’s a bowl for every palate: the fruity salmon ponzu, spiked with juicy orange; the kani bake, for those looking to avoid raw fish, highlighted with radish for crunch and masago for refreshing brininess; or the truffle yellowtail, which meshes mild yellowtail with a double dose of truffle, dried chile threads and crunchy puffed rice. For vegetarians, there’s even the market vegetable bowl, a mix of seasonal vegetables that features whatever local produce is delivered that week.
But these days I can’t resist the build-your-own bowl.
At the front of the restaurant, you’ll agree on the size of your bowl (the $10 regular is a decent amount of food, but the $13 large will upgrade you to five scoops of protein instead of the default three), and your own personal poke bowl chef will take you down the line. Start with a base of salad greens or white rice, choose your protein, and then your toppings, sauces, “textures” and oils.
The cut of the protein is deceptively important: If it’s too large, you’ll end up with a giant mouthful of fish that you’re obliged to chew forever without a sufficient balance of seasoning. Too small, and the cubes will be awkward to spear with chopsticks. SeaSide strikes the right balance with medium-size cubes that blend seamlessly with other chopped toppings and give you a good amount of fish cubes even in a regular size. Basic protein options include salmon, tuna, yellowtail and spicy tuna, though you can customize your bowl with a half-and-half blend of two different proteins. Keep an eye out for seasonal bowls: The restaurant recently released a tuna coconut curry bowl, which features tuna tossed in a creamy house green coconut sauce that features an enticing but subtle mix of curry flavors that’s meant to avoid overpowering the fish.
On both visits, the arrayed toppings looked vibrant and fresh. Although standard items — like chopped cucumber, radish, green onion, celery, masago, pickled ginger and wasabi — generally stay the same, some ingredients will rotate in and out with the seasons and local farm hauls. I was excited to see the unusual addition of spaghetti squash and, on one occasion, thin slices of pickled apple, which lent a delightful sweetness and refreshing crunch to my bowl.
Premium toppings range from 50 cents each to $1 for avocado, but mashed avocado is such a great creamy binder that it’s hard to imagine a bowl without it. Some toppings, like the briny, chewy seaweed salad, stay in their own prepackaged containers, but everything else gets tossed with your sauce of choice — the sweet shoyu is delicious, but depending on the ingredients you’ve selected, the slightly citrusy ponzu, the spicy gochujang or the creamy aioli may be better picks.
Near the end is where diners get to choose the “textures.” A bowl of furikake, an addicting, salty mix of seaweed flakes, sesame seeds and dried fish, is heavy on the seeds. There’s also crunchy dried shallots; pungent dried garlic; long, mild threads of togarashi (dried chile peppers); tiny strips of nori; and crunchy puffed rice. Yes, you can ask for all of them.
A little farther down, you can top off your bowl with your choice of infused oil (think sesame, truffle, basil or EVOO), as well as a shaving of microgreens, freshly trimmed from potted buds.
The spotlight is all on the poke, but the cute and fittingly casual dessert option deserves acknowledgment: tiny squares of Rice Krispies in three flavors, $3 for a bag. Current flavors are matcha, ube (a purple yam with an earthy, sweet flavor) and pandan (with subtle notes of coconut and vanilla).
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For a crunchy side, grab an order of the salmon skin “chicharrones” — what the team calls its version of chips and salsa. The bubbled, fried chips are reminiscent of the foamy Chinese prawn chips with fishy undertones and lingering oiliness that is cut by the “salsa,” a clear, sweet and slightly garlicky green sambal sauce. It’s one of the best dishes I’ve seen address food waste in a while.
On a recent lunch visit, I crunched through a mouthful of puffed rice, fresh cucumber, pickled apple and yellowtail doused in ponzu, watching patron after patron in crisp work attire filtering through the doorway. All were greeted by friendly employees who efficiently worked them down the line. Although many took their meals to go in convenient plastic containers, seating still filled up fast, with people lingering over their colorful bowls. If you ask me about SeaSide’s goal of distinguishing the Hawaii-inspired with Houston-centric flavors, I think they nailed it.
2118 Lamar, No. 101, 346-319-4915, seasidepoke.com. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.
Large bowl $13
Small poke $10
“Chips and salsa” salmon chicharrones $5
Rice Krispies $3