Since Top Chef alum Lee Anne Wong announced that she’d be opening a fast casual poke spot in NYC, the trend has skyrocketed here. The lines are long, and a new place seems to be opening every week. But Wong, who’s lived in Hawaii since 2013 to run her restaurant Koko Head Cafe, says none of them match up to the real thing on the islands. Her new restaurant Sweetcatch Poke, a project with the team behind Korean barbecue hotspot Kang Ho Dang Baekjong, will finally debut this fall with three locations in Midtown (642 Lexington Ave., 135 West 37th St., and a to-be-determined one on 45th St.), and she’s determined to do poke differently.
"What you’re seeing and what’s trending in America is this cousin of poke, where everything is made to order," Wong says. "It’s more like a sushi bowl, using a lot of non-traditional ingredients." Most poke from Hawaii comes pre-marinated, without all the dressings of the Chipotle-style made-to-order bowls popping up around the city, she says. (This Eater primer on the trend across the country gets into why poke spots have blown up in this way.) "Pre-marinating and salting the fish, you’re enhancing the texture, so the fish is firmer," she says. "It’s a little bit dryer. It’s not cubes of poke coated in mayonnaise."
'I'm hellbent on doing something better.'
So Sweetcatch will be selling pre-marinated poke by weight, a way for people to order it grab-and-go like at the small shops of Hawaii. Fish options — both shipped from Hawaii and sourced locally — will change seasonally, and premium pokes like ones made from Maine lobster or East Coast scallop may be offered. Toppings and additions like crispy onions can be purchased separately. She’s also hoping this style will help to curb long lines. People who would prefer to do custom bowls can still stand in line at Sweetcatch. The poke chainlet will offer the "sushi bowls" that have risen in popularity, with bases like rice, noodles, and salads, a way for Wong to meet in the middle in New York. But the lunch crowd will have access to the more traditional form of Hawaiian poke.
While she doesn’t begrudge people for their love of bowls, the quality of the fish at poke spots in New York has disturbed her, she says. Wong’s tried every new place in town and suspects that many gas their tuna with carbon monoxide, a method that helps frozen fish retain its original red color. Gassed tuna doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, but the added color does help mask the fish if it’s old — and helps keep prices down.
Sweetcatch will be more expensive than other poke places in the city, and Wong says it's because of her commitment to fresh, sustainable fish. It will serve farmed fish and a small amount of wild fish, and people can expect to pay $8 for a quarter pound. She likens it to buying sushi from a restaurant, versus supermarket sushi. Seafood is not cheap, she says, and with the dwindling fish supply, she’s doing her best to source Sweetcatch responsibly. "At the end of the day, I don’t want the customer who wants to pay as little money as possible to put raw fish in their body," Wong says.
Overall, Wong just wants Sweetcatch to feel like a little taste of Hawaii in New York. Besides traditional poke, it will serve Hawaiian snacks and beer and signature poke mixes created by the chefs. The first one on Lexington Avenue is expected to open in October, and the flagship on 37th Street should open in November. Bringing poke to New York "is an honor and a privilege," Wong says, and she wants to make sure it’s done right. "I’m hellbent on doing something better," she says.