Big Tuna mixes up poke bowls – like the classic Big Katuna, with cucumber and ponzu dressing – fresh to order.
Anh Tran has spent most of his 26 years cooking – from the family kitchen to nouveau dim sum spot Mean Bao and a smattering of Thai restaurants. But nothing shaped his culinary destiny like one memorable bowl of poké.
“I guess the moment was when my friend, who’s also a cook, made it for me,” Tran says. “It changed my life.”
That meal put Tran on the crest of a new wave. His Big Tuna Poké Bar, a no-frills little takeout shop in Koreatown, became the first spot in Toronto dedicated entirely to the Hawaiian raw-fish salad.
Big Tuna’s Ninja bowl with spicy mayo, wasabi peas, nori and taro chips.
Traditionally, poké (the word means “chopped” in Hawaiian) features diced-up tuna or salmon dressed with ponzu, a citrus-laced soy sauce, plus fixings like veggies, crushed nuts and sesame. Instead of just going the traditional route, the young chef recruited some buddies for some R&D.
“We would make poké for ourselves, try other people’s, tear our food apart. My girlfriend in particular – she’s just so brutal.”
The final menu includes a long list of toppings that encompasses everything from crushed macadamia nuts and daikon to lotus chips and wasabi peas, plus a few originals from Tran and company.
The classic Big Katuna gets a burst of soy-sesame freshness from the ponzu marinade, plus some nutty, buttery flavours from the aforementioned macadamias, while the Japanese-inspired Ninja burns pleasingly on the tongue thanks to spicy mayo and a sprinkling of wasabi peas, before the chilled cubes of salmon cool it back down.
Mexico is also represented on the menu – which might sound like an unusual combo, but the salsa verde base on the El Guapo is a stroke of genius.
“I don’t mean to offend anyone, because you need to respect the heritage and where the food comes from, but food needs to evolve,” Tran says.
“Hawaii’s a clash of cultures, people creating their own thing. That’s why it resonates with me.”
599 Bloor West, at Palmerston, 647-352-0599, facebook.com/bigtunapokebar
The soon-to-be-owner of North Poké started out visiting Hawaii for pleasure, but her last few trips – three in the past year – have been all business.
Soon-to-open North Poké promises a broad menu of salmon, tuna, albacore and octopus poké bowls.
“I worked with local chefs, met local families who taught me their secrets and their recipes. From there I went to California and New York and tried a whole bunch more,” rattles off restaurateur Linda, who prefers to keep things on a first-name-only basis. Her North Poké, a surf-shack-inspired hall of Hawaiian eats, is set to go into soft-launch mode any day now in Kensington Market.
“The sushi trend has been around forever, so people are really used to eating raw fish,” she says. “When I went to Hawaii and had it, I was like, whoa – this is something completely different.”
Linda’s co-partner is a long-time seafood distributor, which helped them open up their options. On top of salmon and ahi tuna, albacore and octopus will also be staples.
“People associate poké with sushi, but it’s marinated, so it gets a completely different flavour,” she says. “Especially in Toronto, where people are doing sushi burritos and [Japanese-inspired] poké, I really want to get away from all that and just make sure it’s distinctively different. We’re not Japanese food – it’s Hawaiian food.”
Still, she admits, Japanese influences are a cornerstone of Hawaiian cuisine. And in Hawaii’s poké shacks, she adds, “there are Korean influences, Japanese influences – pretty much everywhere goes into those bowls.”
That’s why the menu will feature a traditional ponzu and soy marinade, but also Korean-style kimchi crema and gojuchang dressing and a slightly Spanish chorizo and octopus combo, “for those who don’t want fish all the time.”
They also promise beefy portions of seafood, plus snack-size bowls for those new to poké or looking to create their own mini-combo meal – and fluffy, Hawaiian-style shaved ice with homemade syrups for dessert.
There might not be anybody in Toronto better poised to reel in a seafood trend than Josh Chaim.
Chaim’s father opened Edo, one of the city’s first sushi restaurants, 30 years ago, and the younger Chaim grew up immersed in the restaurant world before moving abroad to work in start-up development. On frequent -visits to California, he spent downtime between meetings checking out spots like San Francisco’s Sushirrito and Santa Monica’s Sweetfin Poké.
Fish’d By Edo pays tribute to its older sibling, Edo, with Japanese-inspired poké recipes – though the current salmon bowl includes Mexican and Cajun touches.
“Last summer I was like, ‘You know what? This is the time to bring [these dishes] back to Canada,’” he says. “Two years ago, it would not have worked.”
He hashed out sushi “burrito” and poké recipes with veteran Edo chef Ryo Ozawa and his sous-chef, “using my kind of pan-cultural inspirations and their knowledge of the balance of texture and colour and flavour.”
He pitched the Air Canada Centre on his new portable products – “they probably have never approved anything faster than the sushi burritos” – and catering with poké recipes at private parties, including one thrown by Justin Bieber’s dad. (A friend called him up the next day and asked him what he was doing on TMZ.)
The next step for the newly branded Fish’d by Edo was a pop-up at Front Street Foods for the summer, giving the public a taste of Ozawa’s recipes. Atlantic salmon and tuna are transformed into poké bowls built on beds of cooked-to-perfection Nishiki rice or quinoa.
There’s a Japanese bent to their current tuna bowl recipe, which features earthy nori and a sake marinade, plus jicama and mango for sweetness, while the salmon offering skews a -little more multicultural, with salsa, jalapeño and Cajun seasoning in the mix alongside traditional ponzu. Originally, their sushi burritos were far and away the top sellers, but nowadays, Chaim says, the poké has reeled in just as many fans.
Now, the bad news: the Fish’d pop-up is set to wrap up for the summer on Friday (August 5). The good news: Chaim has an eye on a permanent downtown location and plans to eventually spread his new concept from sea to shining sea.
150 York, at Adelaide, 647-967-1836, facebook.com/FishDbyEDO
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