Poké is the latest trendy dish to sweep into Downtown New Haven, with the fourth spot in a year about to open.
Three intrepid New Haven Independent reporters went on a mission to find out more about New Haven’s new yen for a bowl of fresh veggies and raw fish.
Three poké restaurants have so far opened in downtown New Haven—Pokélicious on Church Street, Pokémoto on Audubon Street, and PokeCape on Orange Street. Pokélicious is technically the O.G. in town, but only by like a week ahead of Pokémoto.
Poke Cape is the new kid on the block, having opened in September. Pokémoto is preparing to open a second location on Chapel Street in the former home of Insomnia Cookies, which has since moved next door to the College Street Music Hall. That would make a fifth Connecticut location for Pokémoto, which also has outposts in Hamden, Fairfield, and Norwalk. According to its website, it has plans for locations in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and more Connecticut locations too.
So last week, my colleagues Tom Breen and Brian Slattery joined me on an expedition to taste the poké rainbow—having a bowl and a chat with the people who are responsible for bringing the dish to the Elm City. Our previous poké eating experiences ranged from one time for Tom, about three times for me and “a lot of times because of [my son] Leo,” for Brian.
Our poké knowledge also was small. We weren’t even sure we were pronouncing it correctly. (We weren’t. But more on that later.) And we were definitely fuzzy on the poké origin story with the group collectively believing uncertainly that poké is Hawaiian in its origin but a little Japanese in its components. Because as far as we could all tell poké is a generously deconstructed sushi roll.
What we would learn on our adventure is that Hawaiian-style poké is the prevailing kind being served up in Downtown New Haven. But the majority of people making bowls in the Elm City actually have roots in Korea where they grew up eating hwe dup bap, a Korean-style poké, or sushi bowl.
As with many things that have come to the mainland United States and this nation’s ever-evolving immigrant story, poké is a familiar dish that people brought with them. And folks from the Asian diaspora have their own versions of it.
First Stop: Poke Cape
We started our culinary adventure at the newest poké restaurant on the New Haven map, Poke Cape on Orange Street, because it was closest to our office.
Jason Park opened Poke Cape on Orange Street back just a few weeks ago at the beginning of September. He was doing a steady lunch business Friday in what we determined was the greatly transformed former Downtown campaign headquarters for Mayor Toni Harp. Gone were the white walls and the campaign signs. In their place are wood paneled walls and pictures of green vegetables.
As at many of the poké restaurants, bowls at Poke Cape are prepared Chipotle-style: pick a base of rice and/or veggies, add a protein, and then build on some flavor. If you’re a little less into choosing your own adventure, or just unfamiliar with what might taste best, Poke Cape, like other restaurants, has a number of standard “house bowls” from which to choose.
The tasting team decided to split a Hawaiian Bowl which had mixed greens, cucumber, tuna, sweet onions, masago, edamame, seaweed salad, cherry tomato, crispy onions, corn, carrots, and sesame seeds.
Though we grabbed a few additional condiments like soy sauce, sweet chili oil, and hot sauce, we decided to first try the bowl without adding anything just to get an assessment of the flavors. It was an attractive looking dish with generous, fresh looking pieces of fish, and bright green, crispy veggies and sweet mango. But we quickly learned that all those additional condiments were there for a reason.
“Needs more spices,” was Brian’s assessment.
“It’s cold, slippery and kind of bland,” Tom concluded.
“I like fish but this is an overwhelming amount without something,” I added.
With that we let Brian handle mixing in all the condiments we had on hand and just like that “It’s a whole different dish,” Tom said. The addition of the condiments brought all these flavors that were just kind of meh together and transformed them into something a little more cohesive.
Tom and Brian have both been eating more vegetarian than not these days and Tom concluded that he could have done without the tuna. He enjoyed the veggies just fine.
Park, who ran a poké restaurant in Seoul, South Korea for five years before moving to Trumbull and opening up Poke Cape in September, said that poké is such a hit because of its healthful ingredients.
“Many people like poké because it is healthy and fresh,” he said.
Second Stop: Pokélicious
After the first taste of poké, we were left with an understanding of the draw:
• The food skews to what most folks would think of as “healthy.”
• The fresh fish — often tuna and salmon — are supposed to be good sources of omega-3 fatty acids and the leafy greens are likely good for the digestion.
• The combination of flavors provides enough umami — that savory and sometimes indescribable flavor often found in Asian cuisine — to keep your mouth interested. But we were all looking for a little “wow factor.”
As we made our way to Church Street, we noticed that a new ramen spot is going in just down the block from Meat & Co. We stopped to ask someone if the owner was afoot. It turned out he was. He said he plans to open up shop in about two weeks, but told us to stop in and talk with his sister, Katie, about setting up a time to come back for an interview.
“She’s around the corner at Pokélicious,” he said. Well, that worked out perfectly, as we were heading there anyway.
Katie Kim is the owner of the poké shop that fronts Church Street just across the way from Gateway Community College. The vibe is a bit younger and hipper than Poke Cape, with the music selection skewing toward Billboard 100, rather than ‘90s rock.
Kim, like Park, hails from Seoul, South Korea. She helped us fill out our knowledge of poké and told us about the aforementioned hwe dup bap, or Korean-style poké. She also taught us how to pronounce it: “po-kay,” not “po-kee.”
Pokélicious also has the build-your-own bowl option and a standard assortment of pre-determined bowls. Kim’s bowls are named after places that she and others who work at the restaurant have been. That means in addition to a New Haven bowl, there’s a London, Seoul, Tokyo, and Mexico City.
She said each city has either its own poké culture or some kind of mainstay cultural fish meal. She wanted to represent that on the menu, though Hawaiian-style poké is the thing that most people in the U.S. have heard about as of late. She said business has been good and she said her regulars come in nearly every day.
“Even I ask, ‘Don’t you get tired of eating the same thing every day?’” she said. “But they say no.”
Kim said she has been surprised at how poké has taken off in the city.
She told us that the New Haven bowl was the most popular on the menu, so we decided to give it a go. We skipped the rice because we didn’t want to fill up too fast.
As with the first bowl, we decided to go in before adding additional condiments. We were pleasantly surprised by a condiment that comes standard in the New Haven bowl: wasabi mayo.
The wasabi mayo, with its tangy kick, transformed the raw fish and the salad greens, acting as both a delicious sauce and salad dressing. Adding both of the sauces that were on our table only helped amplify the flavor. Like the previous bowl we’d had earlier, the New Haven bowl had some fruit—in this case pineapple—but it was lost in the sheer volume of other things in the bowl.
“The fruit just kind of comes and goes,” Brian said.
Though we ate plenty of poké, we were all pretty happy with our intake of fresh veggies on this day and our lack of a need for a good long afternoon nap.
“It’s really popular with people who see poké as healthy,” Kim said. “People say that it doesn’t make them feel sick and they’re not bloated and they feel more energized.”
Final Stop: Pokémoto
The last stop on our poké tour brought us to Audubon Street, and Pokémoto. Since Brian had eaten at this location a number of times, Tom and I turned our palates over to him and let him build our shared bowl.
Brian likes spice; Tom and I do, too. He made sure the bowl had plenty of it thanks to fresh jalapeños and something called “spicy maniac” sauce. He traded the sweet elements that we found common in the house bowls we’d tried previously, going for more pickled elements like ginger and daikon.
We had all of that along with cucumber, cilantro, hijiki seaweed, green onions, and carrots on top of a bed of brown rice. And he sprung for a scoop of avocado, which will set you back an additional $1.75. “Avocado,” Brian explained, “glues it all together.” All of that was topped with crispy onions.
“I think we found our wow factor,” I said.
It had all the elements of freshness that we enjoyed in the other poké bowls, without the fish — Brian chose tofu as our protein instead — and with a whole lot more zip.
“This is by far my favorite,” Tom said. “I’m glad to not be eating big hunks of raw fish.
As we crushed our last poké bowl, we came up with these three tips:
• If you’re not familiar with the flavors, ask the staff about what they like. It can be intimidating if you don’t really know flavors. If you rely on the safer house bowls, you might get flavors that leave you a little underwhelmed.
• If you want intense flavors, you’ll have to try the thing that scares you most. Go spicy; go pickled. We loved the spicy maniac sauce and the pickled daikon. We really enjoyed the wasabi mayo too.
• Decide how much you really like raw fish. Fish seemed to be a big part of the draw of a poké bowl. There was plenty of it in the first bowls we tried. If that’s your thing, by all means, enjoy it. But our favorite bowl was the one without the fish. Go figure.
We didn’t get to meet Pokémoto’s owner, Thienson Nguyen, on the day we dropped by for a late lunch. He’s been pretty busy spreading the poké love as he branches out across New England.
But he told me via email that he is born and raised here in Connecticut. He’s an avid traveler and even lived in Hawaii for about six months. He now makes his home in Branford.
He said New Haven already has a pretty diverse food scene but he wanted to introduce something different.
“When we lived in Hawaii we fell in love with poké,” he said. “Poké there is essential and easily accessible. We knew poké was missing in New Haven. We definitely try to cater to all in what we offer. It’s fresh and it’s simple; the way food should be.”
He described the team driving the Pokémoto expansion as “awesome” and they plan to take over Connecticut and keep going.
“Whatever we’re doing, we must be doing it right,” he said. “You’ll be seeing more Pokémotos around.”