Chef Chat

New Players in Houston's Poke Scene

From Liberty Station and Kata Robata to Gyu-Kaku and the Velvet Taco, poke (pronounced poh–kay, sans the accent mark on the “e”) has been in Houston restaurants for a while now. It’s almost an obligatory hipster factor to add an "ahi poke something" to the menu. Over the next few weeks and into next year, the trend is about to hit the mainstream population in a big Chipotle-style way.

"Poke" is the Hawaiian verb for “slice” or “section.” Typically, poke is served in a bowl and comes with rice, marinated cubes of fresh fish (usually tuna, salmon or yellowtail) and a sauce composed of soy, sesame oil and green onions.

Two of the newest players on the poke scene, Seaside Poke and Ono Poke, are brand-new small mom-and-pops that aren’t your typical mom-and-pops of the old days. Both poke restaurants (to-be) were founded by millennials who wanted to use their education, skills and hard-work ethics to turn passion into product. Unlike concepts born from private restaurant groups that are debuted to the public by PR machines, these are the little guys, taking it to the streets, bars, parks and festivals, getting their names and food out there any way they can.

The founding partners of Seaside Poke, Alex Boquiren, Kristy Nguyen and Ben Baek, tapped chef Tai Nguyen (formerly of Uchi, Soma and the ill-fated Fish & the Knife) to help them create a poke menu that reflected the Hawaiian dish. The group worked out logistics and spent endless hours menu-planning and market strategizing for months starting in January of 2016. They used pop-up events as opportunities to tweak recipes, adjust prices and gauge interest and viability. In April, Seaside sold out within a few hours at its first pop-up, at Lincoln Bar in the Washington Corridor. After this success, the team negotiated a six-month gig, selling poke at Doc Holliday’s, a popular bar in Rice Village.

Ono Poke has a similar start-up tale, with three friends — Patrick Lam, Jim Nguyen and Frederic Lam — coming together to make their poke dream a reality. Patrick, a former professional dancer and choreographer, spent a lot of time in Hawaii, traveling with a company. It was more than three years ago that he fell in love with poke, and it wasn’t until this past January that he decided to make a move. “I don’t think Houston was ready for a poke invasion three years ago, but it felt right to try it out now,” said Patrick.

Chef Nguyen of Seaside told us his poke is not a traditional Hawaiian-style, but definitely Hawaiian-inspired. Honing his sushi skills and learning from some of the best in the business have taught him the importance of sourcing local ingredients and giving back to the community. This past Thanksgiving, Nguyen and his team donated a portion of all their earnings from an event called “Provide with Seaside” to the Houston Food Bank. With that money, they were able to provide 1,271 meals to Houston families in need.

Seaside finished its six-month pop-up stint at Doc Holliday’s on December 11. “It was important for us to take some time and really focus on opening the brick-and-mortar,” said Nguyen. Don’t expect another Seaside pop-up anytime soon. By late spring or early summer, the restaurant hopes to open real doors to Seaside Poke. Nguyen didn’t share the exact address, but mentioned that he has already found a possible location in the Heights, on 19th near Shepherd.

For Ono, the journey has been a bit different; it hasn’t popped up as aggressively, but it has managed to beat Seaside to the poke punch. A soft-opening preview event last Saturday for friends and family was successful in that it proved that there were still some kinks to work out. The restaurant is small, with a half-dozen tables and an L-shaped, glass-encased countertop. The setup is easy: 1) Rice or no rice 2) Pick a fish 3) Pick a sauce 4) Pick your toppings. There were at least 18 toppings available, ranging from avocado and seaweed salad to masago (smelt roe) and crushed hot Cheetos.

Patrick thinks his Ono sauce is going to set the benchmark for poke in Houston. “To me, it’s about how fresh it tastes — the sweet, vinaigrette tartness is the key; it reminds me of Hawaii.” Ono plans to open to the general public by the end of the year.

There are a handful of other poke shops popping up on Houston's radar lately. Earlier this week, California-based chain Pokeworks announced plans to open in 2017, and Pokeology pop-ups happen regularly every Friday at Axelrad. Nguyen (Seaside) and Patrick (Ono) don’t seem to be worried about the competition in town. In fact, both exuded a sense of camaraderie when speaking about each other.

Both Seaside and Ono offer variations of sauce and toppings as well as already composed signature bowls. Expect to pay between $9 to $12 for a Seaside bowl and $10 to $13 at Ono.

Seaside Poke,[email protected]
Physical address to be determined

Ono Poke, 607 Richmond,
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Cuc Lam is a freelance food writer for the Houston Press and local pop-up chef. She enjoys teaching cooking classes and hosting dinner parties when she is not writing.