Poke Mon may be on-trend—but its real goal is to make you feel nostalgic.
When the owners of Poke Mon first approached chef Colin Yoshimoto in September of last year, they knew only three things: Their restaurant would be called Poke Mon, it would be on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, and it would serve La Croix.
Poke Mon opened, unintentionally, in the wake of Pokémon Go mania, which gave it an immediate boost. Two of its owners, Brent Atchley and Mike Chin, are renowned pro skaters. Our runner-up to Pop-In of the Year has six flavors of chilled La Croix in the case and more mint-colored succulents than Kinfolk's Instagram.
Considering the spot encompasses so many trends simultaneously—including the poke itself—Yoshimoto's stated goal is interesting.
He wants to make people feel nostalgic.
"I want locals to come here and be like, 'This is like home,'" says Yoshimoto, who's a native of Oahu. "That familiarity is important to me. To have people from the island come here and be repeat customers is all I want."
Poke goes deep in Hawaiian culture. It was there when Captain Cook showed up, and some think it goes back to the first people to live on the islands. For generations, Hawaiian fishermen have seasoned their cut-offs from their catches with seaweed, sea salt and nuts as a tasty snack. Now, it's casual grub, sold at grocery stores by the pound, brought to the beach and pot lucks and washed down with beer.
It wasn't until poke came to Los Angeles that restaurants began serving it over rice.
"This concept was unfamiliar to me until I went down to L.A. and I was like, 'Oh, this is a real thing: restaurants that just serve poke over rice,'" Yoshimoto says.
But Yoshimoto didn't grow up just eating poke on the island. He's also worked at some of the best sushi spots in the city, first at Nob Hill's now-closed Hiroshi and then alongside chef Ryan Roadhouse at high-end Japanese pop-up Nodoguro. For four years, he was the general manager of famed Thai chicken-and-rice spot Nong's Khao Man Gai. All are places with tight quality control. And, he says, that's a quality he's adapted at Poke Mon through precise knife cuts.
"I think a lot of poke places don't have experience with precise knife work, so the cuts aren't as clean or consistent," he says. "My experience with sushi has really helped me translate that better, and make it more sushi-esque."
You see the razor precision on meaty chunks of salmon and albacore, but also on the grapefruit, cucumber, red onion and avocado in Poke Mon's six signature bowls. The bowls are splattered with Japanese-inspired sauces, like the garlic ponzu sauce, a citrus shoyu infused with roasted garlic that stains both the pink salmon and grapefruit chunks in the garlic salmon poke with a deliciously salty flavor.
"It's just the flavors of Hawaiian poke that I really like, and I added some Japanese ingredients in there to add some uniqueness but also keep that familiarity," he says of the sauces. "It's things I'd want to eat with sushi."
Combined with the restaurant's selection of 20 sakes and the high-quality fish chunks, you feel like you're in a very good Japanese restaurant—but only spending about $10 a bowl.
He says figuring out how to keep the bowls that cheap has been the most difficult part of running the business.
"It's not a profitable concept to have high-quality fish at a lower price. I'm serving the same quality fish as any of the best sushi restaurants in town, but I'm selling it at a much lower price," he says. "The perception of value at a sushi and poke place—it's different. People will willingly pay that much for sushi, but they come here expecting it to be cheap. It's a weird, altered perception of value that I wasn't expecting."
At this point, Yoshimoto is adding a Hawaiian fried-chicken dish, which he will serve on Fridays.
"I'm just wanting to create more food for people from Hawaii that they miss," he says. "They can come here and have it be nostalgic or familiar."