Fans of the latest food craze to hit Houston will have even more ways to enjoy their newfound love this spring when SeaSide Poke opens its first brick-and-mortar restaurant at 2118 Lamar Street in East Village, a two-block entertainment district in Houston's edgy East Downtown. Featuring the popular Hawaiian import of rice topped with fresh, raw fish, add-ins and simple sauces as its main offering, the fast-casual concept anticipates opening to the public in May 2017. Construction for a second SeaSide (location to be announced at a later date) is expected to get underway this summer and open by year-end.
"Houston's poke proliferation is real. The city has a huge appetite for fish and seafood in general, but specifically for sushi," says SeaSide partner Vu Bui, who conceived the idea for opening a poke restaurant in Houston long before there were any in the city. "After experiencing poke for the first time - in California - I knew the casual concept would be a welcome addition to Houston's dining scene. With all the bright, light flavors of sushi but at a more affordable price point, it's like the next-gen sushi bowl-fresh, wholesome and flavorful," says Bui. "The popularity of poke here and nationwide is not surprising in the least."
For Bui and business partner Juan Cao, the plans were not intended to roll out two units quite this quickly. However, as luck would have it, prior to launching their poke concept under a different name, the two crossed paths with the talented team at SeaSide Poke, a popular poke pop-up shop who had intentions of opening a poke place in the inner-loop. Soon after meeting, the two teams, each with their own chefs, quickly realized that they wholly complemented each other and, by joining forces, they could create a poke dream team of sorts. Together they could also hit the ground running, first to launch the imminent East Downtown location along with delivery and catering service soon following, and subsequently opening a second location near year-end with a fully trained staff. "As a team we've been able to identify and capitalize on each of our talents and strengths and really drill down to what each of us will focus on," says Kristy Nguyen, who co-founded SeaSide Poke with Alex Boquiren in 2015. "We will be able to give our culinary team the resources they need to explore and bounce ideas off each other. We have more room to grow."
To set itself apart from other poke shops in Houston and around the country, SeaSide's menu will stray from traditional Big Island and Cali styles. Instead, chefs Tai Nguyen and Vuthy "Tee" Srey will maintain elements of the popular Hawaiian dish while drawing heavily upon flavors from Houston's diverse culinary landscape to combine modern techniques and local ingredients in fun and surprising ways. "We want to create a menu inspired by culture that speaks to our Houston roots," says Kristy. "Our menu will reflect that."
Both chefs benefit from training with esteemed sushi houses; Chef Tai Nguyen, who served as chef at SeaSide's poke pop-ups, grew up assisting his Vietnamese mother in the kitchen, eventually turning to cooking
as a career and worked his way up the ranks to train in local kitchens including Fish & Knife, Soma Sushi and Uchi. The latter is where the chef learned to step outside the box to play with flavors and textures and think about food in a more creative manner. Chef Tai has explored unique combinations while SeaSide has been in operation, such as a tuna poke bowl featuring watermelon, fennel and ponzu.
Chef Srey brings 10 years of experience in sushi and Japanese cuisine, first in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, and then in Houston as a sushi chef at Aka Sushi House and MF Sushi under master sushi chef Chris Kinjo. His study of poke included conducting field research in Hawaii, providing Chef Tee with a solid foundation on which to build their signature bowls.
At SeaSide, guests can choose from eight signature bowls-a great place for novices to begin their poke exploration-or build customized bowls, beginning with rice, salad or yucca chips. Several proteins will be offered including tuna, salmon and yellowtail, along with a range of toppings, including avocado, kani, masago, seaweed salad, and tobiko. Offerings will incorporate local seasonal produce, and SeaSide Poke will also feature seasonal bowls topped with chef's choice of market vegetables and sustainable sushi-grade fish.
"Our signature menu will have traditional styles, but with a twist," says chef Srey. "We'll be adding our own flare."
Cognizant of concerns regarding sustainability, SeaSide Poke hopes to help educate its customers and the Houston community about sustainable farming practices.
"We really wanted to take that idea of poke further," says chef Tai. "We're very transparent about what we do, as far as how it's farm-to-table and where we source our produce. We pride ourselves on sourcing from area farms and will pay homage to our farmers in the restaurant. We are also using seasonal ingredients that reflect our culinary philosophy."
Mirroring the fresh, vibrant elements of its signature dish, SeaSide Poke's inviting 1700-square-foot space is bright and modern and will incorporate a palette that subtly hints at the sea, including navy, chartreuse and oyster white. Organic elements including wooden butcher blocks will provide warmth to contrast the white subway tile.
Plans to create a floor-to-ceiling mural on an expansive 15 by 60-foot wall in the dining area will provide an eye-catching focal point. Customers will have the choice of dining in the restaurant, outdoors on the tree-lined patio, or taking their custom poke bowls to-go.
SeaSide Poke, located at 2118 Lamar, Suite 101, will serve lunch and dinner daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Parking lot available across the street.
For details and updates, visit seasidepoke.com or follow the restaurant on Facebook, at @SeaSidePoke.