By Frank Sabatini Jr.
While putting the finishing touches on his first restaurant endeavor, Yohei Umezu admits he doesn’t play by the rules when it comes to making poke, the raw seafood dish of Hawaii that will dominate his menu in many colorful adaptations.
The concept of his 900-square-foot eatery, San Diego Poke Co. — due to open May 1 at 10397 Friars Road in eastern Mission Valley — was essentially test-piloted over the past year at farmers markets in Scripps Ranch on Saturdays and Hillcrest on Sundays.
“I’ve found that half the people at the markets were familiar with poke, and the other half wasn’t,” Umezu said, noting that “poke eateries have been popping up everywhere in the Los Angeles area — but not so much here.”
In its classic Hawaiian version, cubes of sushi-grade ahi tuna are dressed simply in sesame oil, soy sauce and sea salt, and they’re typically embellished with chopped seaweed and diced Maui onions.
Umezu, however, has become known for taking the presentation to a modern mainland level by incorporating ingredients such as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, fried onions, and a host of sauces that includes sweet chili coconut puree, wasabi cream and miso vinaigrette.
“I’ve dabbled with a lot of different garnishes and sauces that I’ll be narrowing down for the restaurant,” he said.
The protein options will be varied as well. Aside from ahi, customers can choose between raw albacore, octopus, bay scallops, salmon or a mix of them when customizing their bowls, which will be sold in three or five-scoop measures and accompanied by rice. The seafood is sourced from various vendors along the California coast.
Umezu is of Japanese decent and a native of Torrance, California. His knack for creative cooking began as a teenager, when he would sneak cheese into egg rolls or add it to Japanese-style pork cutlets.
“I’ve always enjoyed testing out recipes and using non-traditional ingredients,” he said. “And since I was younger, I’ve seen a lot of people make poke in different styles.”
Umezu previously worked as an electrician before securing spaces at the farmers markets with Chef Meljohn Sebastian, who trained for 10 years at La Jolla’s Café Japengo under acclaimed sushi chef Jerry Warner.
Sebastian will serve as chef for San Diego Poke Co., which will maintain its presence at the weekly markets after the restaurant opens.
“We’re selling, in total, about 150 bowls of poke per weekend,” Umezua said. “It’s been a good way of seeing if customers like our recipes, and they’ve reacted really well to them. I love telling people about poke who have never heard of it.”
Marinating raw fish, Umezu pointed out, is common in numerous countries and locales positioned along oceans. In Mexico, it’s called ceviche; in Italy, it’s known as crudo; and in Malaysia, it’s hinava. As for the Hawaiian term, Umezu says consumers pronounce it either as “poke-ee” or “po-kay,” adding that both are correct.
“Every culture makes it differently. There is no right or wrong way. I like to incorporate all styles,” he said.
The small restaurant, which features a sidewalk patio and black and red accent colors, will seat about 20 guests. Hours will be 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Umezu said he will eventually obtain a beer and wine license after first introducing smoothies, teas and boba drinks.
As for the bill of fare, it’s entirely chilled, clean fish adorned with flavors and textures designed to give poke traditionalists something more to think about.
“The only warm item on the menu will be the rice,” Umezu said.
For more information, call 619-584-4786, or visit sdpokeco.com.