The poke craze has spread quickly. Just a year ago, the Hawaiian marinated raw fish dish hadn't really infiltrated the New Orleans dining scene. That's all changed, as more restaurants are adding versions of the seafood dish to their menus, and one local restaurant focusing on it, Poke Loa, has added two locations.
The latest restaurant to focus on the specialty is Poke-chan, which sits in a colorful building on St. Claude Avenue on the edge of the Marigny neighborhood. Sisters Lien, Loan and Susan Nguyen and Dalena Vo opened the spot in December after they met while working at the nearby French-Japanese bistro N7.
What makes Poke-chan stand out is not the poke itself, which is very good, but the availability of other dishes — the so-called "cooked bowls" — and the charming and relaxed ambience. It's a neighborhood restaurant, not a "fast casual" concept.
Diners build their own bowls by marking their selections on forms, which sit near the entrance — though the procedure may not be immediately clear to newcomers. On top of a base of greens or white or brown rice, diners can choose tuna, yellowtail, scallops, octopus, salmon or tofu, and add sau- ces and toppings such as pickled onions, mango, edamame, corn, nuts, bean sprouts and more.
There is a menu of signature poke bowls with layers of colorful ingredients arranged artfully. The Honey Garlic bowl has thick chunks of tuna and salmon tossed in a sweet honey and garlic marinade interspersed with a mayonnaise-rich snow crab mix. The rice is dusted with togarashi seasoning, and there also are avocado, garlic and marinated onion. The Tamarind Scallion bowl combines a similarly interesting play of sweet, sour and salty ingredients, but the main focus is yellowtail and bay scallops, and jalapeno and wasabi add spicy heat.
Poke-chan also allows diners to make a poke bowl into a burrito. The fillings get rolled into a handy cylinder lined with sushi rice and seaweed, and like many of the items on the menu, it is extremely large. Many of the dishes are big enough for two people to share.
Of the non-poke items, the Japanese-style fried chicken in the Karaage Don was one of the most delicious fried chicken dishes I've had recently. Chunks of dark meat are dredged in potato starch and deep-fried. The crunchy, flavorful pieces are served on a bed of rice and tangy kimchi and drizzled with sweet ponzu and a fiery spicy mayonnaise.
For vegetarians and vegans, the Savory Shroom bowl is a warming and earthy mix of steamed brown rice, silky shiitake mushrooms and fried tofu. Thin strips of black fungus add an extra umami kick, fried lotus root chips add crunch and pickled daikon provides the acidity needed to brighten the dish.
A selection of wines, beer, sake (sparkling, hot and unfiltered) and milk teas underscore that this is a place to relax and enjoy a meal, rather than grab and go. Poke-chan may be the latest restaurant to join the poke trend, but its winning approach is built to last.