Hawaiian Punch

Hawaiian Punch

T he recipe for Thomas Nguyen and Gladys Longwa’s friendship was a simple one: “We ate a lot,” Longwa says. The pair met in New Haven, having moved here after long stints of travel—Nguyen to the west coast and Hawaii, and Longwa from her home in Africa to Belgium and England—and they were hungry to start their own business. “We’re food people,” Nguyen says. “We love good food, and we love feeding people.”

Nguyen has been thinking of poke (“po-kay”)—the traditional Hawaiian dish featuring marinated cubes of raw fish served on their own, or sometimes with sweet onions or rice—since his time on the island. For all of its tropical flair, the dish came to remind Nguyen of the Nutmeg State—specifically, what it was lacking. “I thought, this is something we need,” he says. “Connecticut doesn’t have anything like this.” That changed in October when Nguyen and Longwa opened Pokémoto, a poke eatery on Audubon Street with a Japanese influence.

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Inside, the restaurant is streamlined and casual, taking design cues from burger joints and froyo shops, and is dominated by a long bar of options—divided into starches, proteins, mix-ins, sauces, toppings and “crunch” at the very end—which you can mix and match into bowls, burritos and salads. “People definitely get overwhelmed,” Longwa says. “Especially when it’s their first time here. That’s what we’re here for, to make suggestions.”

While there’s a short list of signature bowls with pre-chosen ingredients, it’s more exciting to choose your own adventure and build a poke bowl (which cost $10.25 or $12.75, depending on protein and size) from scratch. In my case, Nguyen and Longwa did the honors, playing with their favorite ingredients. The final creation was bursting with color, flavor and texture.

Sashimi-grade salmon, fatty and rich and mixed with leaner ahi tuna, began on a bed of sushi rice. The fish were joined by sweet onions, cilantro, corn, the bright pop of mango, the heat of jalapeños and the salty hit of hijiki seaweed.

That would’ve been enough on its own, but it was just the base. Next came a tangy ponzu sauce mixed with spicy mayo, a scoop of velvety avocado ($1.25 extra), green onions, day-glo orange masago, mellow seaweed salad, crunchy furikake, tinsel shreds of dried nori and crispy onion. A far cry from the pared-down Hawaiian original, the tidal wave of ingredients allows for dozens of tastes and textures in a tight package, all of them intriguing, fresh and tasty. A boon to flavor seekers on a budget, that single bowl lasted me for three meals.

Last week, a new treat arrived: Dole Whip, a soft serve pineapple sorbet which is nearly impossible to find outside Dole’s Hawaii plantation and Disneyland. Now offered at Pokémoto in two variations—alone or in a float with pineapple juice—there are other flavors available, too, but the classic daffodil-yellow flavor is a cult favorite for a reason.

I tried the float, which came served in an appealing swirl, topped with an umbrella and a maraschino cherry. Despite being frozen, it was like slurping a cup of sunshine—tart, sweet, smacking of pineapple and surprisingly creamy for a vegan treat.

Even though its doors just opened, Pokémoto already has exciting things on the horizon, including more vegetarian-friendly proteins to add to the current tofu option, and different fruits. For example, Longwa envisions summertime poke served in watermelon or pineapple bowls.

The pair’s ideas all spring from what they themselves would like to eat. As Nguyen says, “I travel for good food. Pokémoto is something I would travel for.” Now he doesn’t have to, and neither do we.

Pokémoto
99 Audubon St, New Haven (map)
Daily 11am-9pm
(203) 691-6650
www.pokemoto.com

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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