With a steady stream of new restaurants offering the mixture of diced raw fish and seasonings, poke is the new food of the moment in New Orleans. (Move over, sandwich/pizza/hamburger/hot dog/donut/BBQ.)
Los Angeles-based chain LemonShark has opened only a scant few blocks from Poke Loa on Magazine Street. Aloha Lei has moved into the upscale food court at the Auction House Market, and a dozen or more sushi restaurants have added “bowls” to their menus. Even grocery store sushi vendors are getting in on the action, selling pre-made bowls from their cold cases. All these places are terrific for poke basics and a few even swim past the OG 1970’s Hawaiian creation to include cooked proteins, tofu, vegetables, and a stunning array of condiments.
This is a meal that makes for bright, colorful and perfectly Instagrammable, edible art. In a wading pool of same-same, how does a fish stand out from its school? I did some serious poke-ing around and found there is local stand out.
Poke-Chan, positioned on the border of our Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, is tucked inside a converted home on St. Claude. The plain beige facade and small sign, sometimes obscured by overgrown trees, isn’t always easy to see. You want to look hard because the food is worth the effort.
A little raw talk: poke is in essence, an unwrapped fancy sushi roll. Poke-Chan takes things next level with Japanese and Vietnamese influences owing to the chef-owners’ heritages and work experience. Sisters Loan, Susan and Lien Nguyen, along with their pal, Dalena Vo, partnered for Poke-Chan. Two of the sisters had worked at Frenchmen Street’s dearly departed Yuki Izakaya, and also at nearby cool cafe, N7.
Climb the long ramp at Poke-Chan’s front entrance to discover a brightly lit, airplant-hung space with a decent number of tables, comfortable seating and a few stools at the counter facing St. Claude. Grab a dry-erase pen and a menu to “make your own” fish-veg-condiment concoction or order a composed bowl of raw or cooked protein. There are many specialty toppings here, like dark wakame seaweed or crispy wheels of lotus root. To eat, it’s always a toss up among the cooked bowls – the Savory Shroom — filled with the umami flavor of frilly woodear fungus and shiitake mushroom — or the knobby twists of crunchy Karaage (Japanese style marinated and fried chicken) with brash kimchi and spices. That said, on my last two visits, I was lured by signs announcing homemade fish and hamachi kama. The Vietnamese style fishcakes (surprisingly, not all that common here in New Orleans) come three-to-an-order. These are garlicky, firm patties to eat by hand after breaking them in half, wrapping them in greens and adding squeezes of fresh lime juice . The yellowtail collar (hamachi kama) which looks like a strange bird wing, is dropped sans batter into the fryer, so the skin crisps and the fish stays juicy. There’s a citrusy, garlic-flecked ponzu sauce for dipping and more fresh lime.
There is a shelf of beverage options — I go for iced oolong or canned milk tea — and at the napkin-chopstick-soy sauce stand, there are large jugs of self-serve ice water. Dessert is a a simple thing: a packaged, fish-shaped waffle filled with ice cream and sweetened red beans. You want one, I promise.
In our big pond of stellar restaurants, with an ever-growing stream of poke places from which to choose, Poke-Chan is a little fish making a lot of waves.