Photos by Asia Morris.
“It’s having its day,” said Mychael Henry of the growing pokē trend in Southern California.
Henry is the local responsible for Poke [as in to poke with a stick; rhymes with "joke"], a pokē [rhymes with "okay"] pop-up restaurant that opened at Rose Park Roasters last month. It’s arguably one of the more peculiar culinary relationships seen to date in Long Beach. The thought of raw fish paired with coffee might strike some as curious, but so far the combination is catching on, with a nod toward the 4th Street coffee house for keeping “the process” interesting.
As with a previous pop-up that sparked the city’s culinary curiosity six months ago—when Wide Eyes Open Palms took up residence at Sura Korean BBQ & Tofu House—Long Beach has a love for supporting its roving entrepreneurs, and Rose Park Roasters is no stranger to the concept.
“Initially the combination seemed strange to have pokē served in a coffee shop, but it was an interesting sort of strangeness and we felt that Mychael's simple but sophisticated approach to pokē did pair really well with our approach to coffee,” said Rose Park Roasters co-owner Nathan Tourtellotte. “We love creating culinary tension between the rugged and the refined, and both pokē and coffee work really well in the tension of that dichotomy.”
This isn’t Henry’s first jaunt into the pokē business. He first opened Poke in 2009 when he lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and had a fruitful five-year stint serving the traditional Hawaiian appetizer, as well as kebabs, out of an expat bar on Wednesdays. Henry says Poke was the first pop-up restaurant to land in the South American nation, with the name “Poke” coming from the sticks the kebabs were served on. Now Henry is solely sticking to pokē, and seeing where it takes him.
“We’re called Poke, we serve pokē,” he explained. “Pokē just means 'to cube,' it’s a Hawaiian word, so anything can be pokē. You could cut up a watermelon and call it pokē. It’s not [just] the fish product, it’s the act of cubing something.”
Henry describes what he creates, a dish influenced by more than a couple cultures, as “hapa”—the same word he uses to describe his own ethnicity. Hapa, short for hapalua, is a Hawaiian pidgin word used to primarily describe “traditionally someone who is Asian and Caucasian mixed," Henry said. "And then I have black in me, too."
Each bowl shows off a Hawaiian and Southern California influence, put bluntly, pokē with a Mexican flair, as Henry adds an artful swipe of sieved avocado on the side of each bowl.
“I grew up here in Long Beach and West Covina,” said Henry. “It’s just what we grew up eating. Hapa food is becoming really popular now.”
After that lucrative half-decade serving pokē in a country known for its asado, or traditional beef barbecue, Henry lived in Hawaii for two years, while, albeit from a distance, keeping an eye on how the dish was trending on the mainland. Now with Poke at Rose Park Roasters, Henry’s isn’t the first locale to bring pokē to Long Beach, but his twist on the traditional Hawaiian blue collar food, attention to detail and love for its origin make his work stand out.
“The Classic is straight Hawaiian style,” he said of the first menu item. “It’s just Maui sweet onions, your fish and a little bit of sesame oil. That’s just a really nice, clean flavor and a really good introduction. And then we started changing it up; the House Special is the one that I’m known for. It has mango in it and cucumber and ginger, and it’s just an explosion of flavors.”
Also on the menu is a Sriracha Aioli bowl, with ahi, Maui sweet onion and scallions and a Vegan bowl, with enoki, shiitake, tofu and maruso. All dishes are served over your choice of brown or white sushi rice, making what is traditionally an appetizer into more of a hearty meal.
“The thing that I really love about poke is it’s like sushi,” Henry iterated. “Whenever you have sushi you always feel really good afterward. Part of it is you’re getting such a protein kick, and that’s the way I feel about pokē. It’s really healthy and people feel really good afterwards.”
Henry’s pop-up isn’t your Chipotle-style pokē buffet where an employee crams a hodge podge of ingredients, that may or may not pair well, into a bowl for you to sift through and digest accordingly without a care for the food’s origin. Henry, who grew up eating the dish, is thoughtful and concise in his execution of each order.
“At the end of the day it was a simple recognition that Mychael cares about the same culinary principles we care about: dreaming up simple concepts that can convey [a] complex culinary experience, always letting the quality of the ingredients speak for itself,” said Tourtellotte.
Big picture, Rose Park Roasters is aiming to create their own food program with a semi-seasonal approach, says Tourtellotte. They’ve tapped into Long Beach’s culinary talent before, with Kat McIver of Wide Eyes Open Palms lending her culinary talent and baking prowess to the shop. Now, Poke has given Rose Park Roasters the impetus to develop a couple of non-coffee beverages, including their Cascara Tea Cocktail, made with bitters, cucumber, lemon, caramel and basil, a match made in foodie heaven with Henry’s signature House Special.
“Executing a great food program is no easy task, particularly when many of us who work at Rose Park are foodies and we want to do something we can be really proud of, something that will stand on its own right as reason to visit our shop,” Tourtellotte continued. “We're taking the slow route so that whatever we end up doing it's consistently delicious and exciting.”
Poke will remain at Rose Park Roasters for three more weeks, two days a week, on Fridays from 11:00AM to 3:00PM and Saturdays from noon to 4:00PM. Follow the pop-up on Instagram @poke.co and its owner Mychael Henry, also on Instagram, @cookwilltravel. For more information about Rose Park Roasters, visit the website here.
Rose Park Roasters is located at 3044 East 4th Street.