Who knows how long this poke trend will last? I’m hoping that, like sushi, it remains a permanent part of the U.S. culinary landscape.
Madison has five dedicated poke restaurants and many others that serve the customizable Hawaiian raw fish, rice and salad bowls as part of a more extensive menu.
Aichan “Wendy” Weng, who is from South China and also owns Dragon I on State Street and Ichiban on Park Street, opened Poke Plus, now called Poke Plus & Teriyaki, on the UW-Madison end of State Street. The storefront was most recently Disco Fries.
She’s helped her brother, Will Weng, open a poke business, Poke Hibachi, near the Purdue University campus in West Lafayette, Indiana. Before that, Aichan helped him put an Ichiban there as well.
In Madison, Aichan also smartly capitalized on the student market and has the distinction of being the only poke spot on State Street. On two recent visits, the clientele was mostly older than the typical college student.
The tiny restaurant has counter seating along its window and in front of a mirrored wall. Otherwise, there’s just one long, glossy, picnic-style communal table. Sidewalk seating extends the capacity in nice weather, Aichan said.
A second visit to Poke Plus is bound to be more successful than a first, since all of the bowls are do-it-yourself and it takes practice to see what works. There are no signature bowls like all the other local poke restaurants offer. At first I thought that was a liability, but now I know it’s not.
My first time, I got a regular bowl ($8.99), which should be called a small. With it comes a choice of two proteins and a host of free toppings. I was hungry afterward, so I finished what my daughter left of her vegetarian bowl.
For my follow-up visit, I went with the largest size, super ($14.99), which allows for a choice of five proteins and makes for a much more interesting and satisfying meal. It’s the poke equivalent of a Big Gulp, almost comically large. The large ($11.99), with three proteins, is probably the best choice.
Customers first choose white rice, brown rice, mixed greens or a combination for the base. The greens were a fresh spring mix. The shop recently started offering a “healthy base” for 50-cents more. It involves dried black rice, buckwheat kernels, oats, red cargo rice, sorghum and barley.
The second step, in typical Subway, MOD Pizza or Chipotle style, is adding freebies. The selection looks small at first, but turns out to be plenty. It’s the premium toppings (for 50 cents extra) that are the real draw: mango, seaweed salad, tofu skin and avocado.
The thin, sweet-tasting tofu skin, also known as bean curd skin, is a must. Manager Yanna Zeng confirmed it’s marinated in teriyaki sauce.
One caution on the premium ingredients: The way they’re laid out, it’s hard to tell some of them from the free ones.
Of the proteins, the fresh raw tuna and raw salmon or their spicy versions are preferable to the marinated ones. The lobster salad is good, but pales next to the wonderful squid salad made with ginger. The medium firm and seasoned cubes of tofu are an excellent choice for vegetarians, or anyone, really.
At the sauce stage, I’ve had luck with the spicy mayo, and the spicy yuzu (with jalapeno and grapefruit). Neither imparts too much heat.
On my first visit, I wasn’t aware of “step 5” — garnishes — which are also free. Tempura crunch (in powder form), scallions, sesame seeds and pickled ginger all add an important dimension.
Teriyaki is the only non-poke option on the menu, and is made to order, so it takes about 10 minutes. The meat in the chicken ($9.99) teriyaki was grilled and cut into long pieces. I loved the mix of vegetables: onions, carrots, zucchini and mushrooms, and the slightly sweet sauce smelled and tasted amazing.
The miso soup is tempting in this weather, and it had a great flavor, as well as a decent amount of tofu and wakame for $1.99.
My only criticism of Poke Plus was minor, a bone in one piece of salmon. It shouldn’t be that unusual, but I’ve never encountered that with poke before.
Poke Plus gets points for offering a dispenser of water with lemon and keeping it full of ice.
Food Fight presciently opened the city’s first poke restaurant, Miko Poke, in August 2016 on Monroe Street.
The real boom started this year with the opening of Poke Poke on Williamson Street and Poke It Up on University Avenue on campus. The newest, FreshFin Poké, opened last month in the James building on Gorham Street, a block from Poke It Up.
Poke Plus got overshadowed by Poke Poke since both opened in April. But the restaurant deserves a following. So far in Madison, all poke is good poke.