Poke Wars

The forthcoming Poke House does poke nachos, bowls, simple sushi rolls, udon and miso soups in an increasingly familiar fast-casual format.

That was fast.

One moment we were wondering if a poke (PO-kay) driven hot spot, increasingly popular in places like San Jose/South Bay and L.A., would ever migrate here.

Then we were exulting over downtown Monterey’s Poke Lab (200-FISH), lines-out-the-door be damned.

And now, suddenly, we are approaching peak poke.

Over the course of about a month, three new poke spots, counting Poke Lab’s food truck, have opened and will open. (A fourth – Poke Depot? Poke Place? Hokey Poke? – is rumored but I haven’t been able to reel in more reliable info.)

Next up is Poke House (384-7898), which opens Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 266 Reservation Road, Suite S, in Marina.

Then comes Poke Time, at 484 Lighthouse Ave., from the folks behind Sushi Time in Seaside (884-5011).

That could happen in October, though restaurant partner Jinhee Park cautions against getting too hopeful, as they originally planned to open in July.

“Everything takes forever,” she says.

They plan on using chef-owner Dylan Bae’s fishermen connections to acquire fresh seafood, while using a similar format to Poke Lab, with more options, particularly salads.

“The same fish as Sushi Time,” Park says. “Our regular customers are really excited.”

Poke House owner Tyler Tran previously operated Tran’s Noodle House in the Barnyard, pleasing patrons with steamed shrimp dumplings, hot-and-sour seafood soup, braised chicken feet and his take on pho beef noodles.

He sold it in July 2015 because he wanted to get his mom/main chef off her arthritic feet.

The poke menu is very similar to Poke Lab’s, with three scoops of fish running $9 and four $10.50:

1. Pick a base of sushi rice, brown rice, mixed greens – or nachos (!).

2. Pick a poke (tuna, salmon, yellow tail when available, octopus, shrimp, edamame-avocado, etc.).

3. Pick a sauce or sauces (including spicy ponzu, wasabi mayo and more).

4. Pick additional toppings (like fried tofu, furikake and green onion).

A closed-to-the-public preview lunch happens Thursday, Sept. 22.

With the official opening Sept. 28, hours will be 10:30am-8:30pm.

Tran plans on adding items as he goes, building from the Friday sustainable yellow tail special.

He says he sources fish with Aloha Royal out of San Francisco and Robbie’s Ocean Fresh Seafood based on Wharf 2, and aspires to join Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list with help from Robbie Torrise (of ROFS). (I pledged to hold Tran to that.)

In addition to poke, he offers five simple sushi rolls (like spicy tuna and California rolls for $3.75-$5.50), a miso soup ($1.50) and an udon noodle soup with fish cake, fish balls and shrimp ($9).

Tran sounds excited to give the city where he resides (Marina) and its students something they don’t currently enjoy.

“One reason I decided to open it is how CSUMB is growing,” he says. “It’s a chance to give them another option but also help some kids get through college by getting them some work shifts.”

He’s not worried about the inventory of poke spots creating a glut.

“I think we’re good as a Peninsula,” he says. “In the South Bay, they’re popping up all over the place – all four sides of town. We’re in a good spot for right now.”

For its part, Poke Lab is becoming a juggernaut with community-centric food truck events like a collaboration they’re doing with Lulu Lemon this week. Its smartphone app has just been approved by the Apple and Droid stores, and as a result can be downloaded as this goes live, and will start including updates and offers in early October, which has the poke throngs stoked.

Lab owner-operator Joey Nguyen isn’t stoked with how one of his new competitors came to be: Tran’s mother worked with Poke Lab during its opening and then absconded.

Tran says he’s never been in Poke Lab, and that his mom has no involvement with his restaurant. He adds it’s all his investment and the similarities are due to the Chipotle-style California brand of choose-your-own-adventure poke.

Nguyen is skeptical.

“I don’t want to dwell on it… a family friend leaving after two weeks with our recipes,” he says. “If people knew the whole story…

“Instead I’m going to focus on making a better product.”

Maybe that’s only appropriate. You don’t hit peak oil without some oil skirmishes, however regrettable.

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Same for peak poke – though at this rate we may not be as close to peak poke as I thought.


The Monterey County Hospitality Association has partnered with Monterey-Salinas Transit to provide free transit passes to hospitality employees. That’s dope. More at www.mst.org.

Mulligan Public House, from the same team that ran Brophy’s Tavern for years, is on the fairway – and on course to open – mid-October on Dolores Avenue-by-the-sea after making it through the Carmel Planning Commission.

Cafe Lumiere (920-2451) in downtown Monterey is introducing new healthy lunch and brunch items like garden-green sandwich and a superfood salad.

Sanctuary Beach Resort and its Kula Island Ranch Steakhouse in Marina are getting an big overhaul after being purchased by Pennsylvania-based REIT Hersha Hospitality Trust.

Big Sur Food & Wine appears on the horizon Nov. 3-5.

The Cooking for Solutions celebration, aptly titled The Party, happens Saturday, Oct. 1, with four music acts, 60-plus restaurants, wineries and breweries plus Emmy Award-nominated host Nathan Lyon ($100-$125, 647-6886).

Trailside Cafe and Beergarden (298-7453) hosts its second annual Oktoberfest through Oct. 3. Anticipate German food specials such as schnitzel, sausages and pretzels to complement nine German/Oktoberfest beers on tap and many more in bottles.

Glenmorangie Scotch Dinner at Rio Grill ($95, 625-5436) flows 6pm Thursday, Oct. 20, with four courses and a gamut of single malt scotch from the 173-year-old distillery.

New “tavern happy hour” and dessert menus launch at Will’s Fargo (659-2774) Saturday, Sept. 24: $3 off each appetizer and half off well drinks, beers, and wines by the glass.

Strategies for Farm Business Success at Aromas Community Grange Hall happens Thursday, Sept. 22 – it’s a half-day summit for Central Coast farmers and food system professionals aimed at increasing awareness of Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs. Attendance is free with RSVP: farmbizstrategies.bpt.me.

TusCA (372-1234) in Hyatt Monterey has new menu items like fall risotto, burrata and squid-ink linguini.

Restaurant 1833 (643-1833) barkeep Josh Perry plans a $30 Manhattan.

John Saleem assisted with these QBs.

Henry David Thoreau: “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

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