Poke is one of the latest food trends to inundate Seattle over the past year, but Rory Rodgers and Joe Om say the craze is even greater in California’s Orange County.
When Rodgers and Om, best friends since high school, decided to open a poke restaurant of their own, they packed up and headed north.
Newport Poke opened March 31 on 12th Avenue, across from Seattle University, offering what Om and Rodgers believe is their own signature on a classic Hawaiian dish. The name is a nod to Newport Beach, which they left behind to pursue their dream of owning their own business.
Like Orange County, Rodgers said Seattle is a mix of many cultures, with a big appetite for seafood.
The duo found their spot at 722 12th Ave., back in October.
“I just fell in love immediately,” Om said of Newport Poke’s relation to Seattle U and his large kitchen.
Rodgers says about 80 percent of Newport’s business comes from students and faculty, who receive a 10-percent discount, and more than half of its employees are Seattle U students.
Employees receive a free daily meal, and are encouraged to experiment with poke combinations, some of which will become preset bowls on the menu next week.
Newport Poke bowls come in two sizes. A regular goes for $10.99, while a large is $12.99.
Regular bowl bases include the standard rice, a multigrain rice and a spring mix that works with a vegan tofu option, but Om thinks Newport’s taro chips blend is a unique offering worth giving a try.
“We wanted, well, I wanted very punny names for our sauces,” he said. While Rodgers isn’t a fan of puns, they say they found a balance.
That includes the Mjango Unchained and Pulp Fiction sauces, with Om’s K-Town sauce being a customer favorite. Growing up in LA’s Korea Town, Om said he became homesick while working as the general manager of a sushi restaurant, and decided to mix together the flavors that reminded him of his old neighborhood.
“Almost everyone gets the K-Town sauce,” Rodgers said.
Newport Poke has a cold kitchen, which limits what sauces can be made, but also saved Om and Rodgers a pretty penny when remodeling the space.
“I think it works well, because it encourages our cooks to be more creative,” Om said.
Most of the toppings are what people can find in typical poke shops, save for the Hot Cheetos. Om said the sushi restaurant he worked at previously had wanted to add some color and crunch to some of its menu items, and at one point proposed dying tempura flakes red. He suggested Hot Cheetos.
“That is a pretty hard sell,” he said, “but once people try it, they love it.”
There were no lack of options in fish suppliers, but Om said he was prepared to eat the cost of having the ahi tuna overnighted fresh from Hawaii every day.
“We want the best,” he said, “and if the best so happens to be from Hawaii, we’ll go there.”
Head chef Alika Manuel came from Hawaii, but that was 14 years ago. The economy wasn’t great, his mom isn’t a fan of hot weather, and they have family in the Seattle area.
He had his own experience preparing poke while living in Hawaii, and previously worked in the kitchen at Joey’s in Bellevue.
Rodgers was introduced to Manuel at a Capitol Hill club, and invited him to demonstrate his skills once the kitchen was ready. Manuel was not told he was there to audition for a job, but a few days later he got the call, and he said he’s very happy and grateful for the opportunity.
Newport Poke is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, but Om said they may add late-night hours in the future, to capture customers coming from nearby bars.
Om and Rodgers want to open five Newport Poke shops in three years, but don’t want to do so through outside investors. Om said he doesn’t want anything to distort their vision or compromise the quality of the product.
“It’s not just about the price for us,” he said. “It’s the quality. Food, to me, is very important.”