People’s Champ: The Super Bowls of Pokeh

BY CHRIS TIESSEN

The first time I tried poke (pronounced ‘POH-keh’) was at Baker Street Station in Guelph. I was on one of my wheat-free kicks – minus liquid wheat, which I determined fine – and decided to give it a go. And what a go it was.The bowl of raw, marinated salmon tossed over warm rice and topped with edamame, sliced avocado, sesame seeds and other delectable ingredients, and finished with a beautifully-executed sesame dressing, was like heaven in my mouth. Fresh, crunchy, pretty, delectable. Sort of like deconstructed sushi – but maybe even better? – Baker’s poke bowl (which I usually paired with a Bellwoods ‘Jutsu’ APA or Elora ‘Lady Friend’ IPA) quickly became my go-to for lunch.
Until it wasn’t.

Because, you see, Baker likes to keep its menus fresh. Which is cool, I guess. But which meant, for me, at least, the loss of my very favourite menu item. (To be fair, every Baker menu has a favourite item. But still.) Lost in the world, I yearned for poke. What luck, then, when I came across an online post by Heather Peter of The Inlet (@theinlet_), entitled ‘Favourite Eats of #HamOnt Restauranteurs’, in which three of the ten Hamilton chefs surveyed chose the eponymous ‘Pokeh’ – also pronounced ‘POH-keh’ – as their best-loved local establishment.

And that’s really all it took for TOQUE Partner Cai Sepulis and me to plan a lunch trip to Hamilton: to try this people’s champ for ourselves. Which brings us to now. Cruising down Highway 6 between the Royal City and Steeltown. Windows open. The breeze in our hair. With thoughts of poke swirling around our heads.
Before long, we’re in downtown Hamilton where we make our way to Pokeh’s Hamilton Market location. It’s not at all hard to find, really, even amidst the myriad of market stalls. All we have to do is look for the longest queue. Jogging up to the open air space, Cai joins the long line while I slide past the counter and into the open kitchen where Pokeh’s Salar Madadi is preparing a batch of what he identifies as spam musubi. ‘A popular snack in Hawaii,’ he notes.

‘To be sure, it’s far from the fresh raw fish we use in our poke bowls,’ Salar continues, referring to the slice of grilled spam on top of a block of rice he is wrapping together with nori. ‘But it’s so tasty. And part of my Filipino heritage, for sure.’ (I have actually never tasted spam, but recall an episode that Filipino Chef Alvin Cailan of LA’s Eggslut did on it as part of Ultimate Breakfast Sandwich for VICE’s food website, Munchies. Fried spam on a Hawaiian sweet roll with eggs, chives, shredded scallions and sriracha mayo. Ever since watching Alvin do it justice like that, I’d wanted to try spam for myself.)

Sensing my anticipation, Salar slides a musubi my way and I take a bite. Heavenly. ‘Like thick, crispy bacon on sushi rice,’ I remark between chews. After a couple dozen more minutes in the kitchen – finishing the musubi, chatting with Salar, shooting the Pokeh staff in action – I notice that Cai has finished placing our order and it is time to eat.

We get comfortable at the restaurant’s front counter and, when the food arrives, dig in. My ahi tuna poke bowl – with green mango, jicama, carrots, wakame, edamame, nori strips, cucumbers, white and green onions, sesame seeds, soy sauce and sesame oil – looks and tastes like pure happiness. Cai’s salmon poke bowl – with carrots, spicy mayo, kimchi, crispy onions, green mango, cucumbers, onions, sesame seeds, soy sauce and sesame oil – is similarly joyful. Fresh, bright vegetables. Perfectly marinated fish.
A brilliant commingling of flavours and textures. ‘Having the market all around us is such a blessing,’ remarks Salar, ‘because there’s always great produce just steps away. Indeed,’ he continues, ‘almost all of our vegetables come from vendors in the building – while the rest is imported Asian produce.’

Betwixt bites of tuna, I ask Salar if he’s always worked in kitchens. ‘In IT, actually,’ he answers. ‘In fact, I only started cooking for folks in 2014 when I opened my MeatVentures food truck. Which,’ he adds with a chuckle, ‘actually has nothing to do with poke.’ (As the name suggests, the truck focuses on meat – and lots of it. A sample dish: bacon-wrapped, cheddar-stuffed, hickory-smoked jalapeno sausage meatballs. You get the picture. Now don’t waste time. Get yourself served.)

‘The idea for doing a poke joint,’ Salar explains, ‘came about on my honeymoon where I sampled my first poke bowl in Venice, California at a place called Poke-Poke.’ (Pronounced, as you might hazard a guess, ‘POH-keh POH-keh’.) Salar continues: ‘When we got back to Canada, I was dying for poke but couldn’t find it anywhere. And so I opened this place in 2015 with my brother Shayne. And our second Hamilton location in 2017.’ And it’s been a wonderful experience ever since.

Picking greedily at the last remnants in my bowl – including at a stubborn edamame that refuses to cooperate – I ask Salar about the Hamilton food scene. And especially about the support he’s received from his culinary peers. (I think back to The Inlet article.) After a good dozen seconds, he answers slowly and deliberately: ‘The local food community has been incredibly good to me and my businesses,’ he begins. ‘From the great support I received early on from [late Hamilton culinary champion] Dave Hanley, who did so much good work bringing this culinary scene together, to the ongoing support I receive from other local chefs, this community has been so helpful and encouraging.’
Salar looks over at his brother, Shayne, who is busy preparing yet another bowl for yet another customer. And adds: ‘Which is the way it should be. After all, we’re family.’

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