We all know the old saying, "Once you go micro shiso, you never go back." No? Well, it should be a common phrase. I grew shiso in a container garden for years, chopping the herb—which tastes like an even brighter combination of cilantro and mint—into pretty much every salad and salsa I made for many a summer. I usually think micro greens are overrated, but tiny leaves of shiso, scattered liberally over raw fish, is the first of many details that makes five-month-old pop-up Seaside Poké stand out.
The brainchild of Alex Boquiren, Kristy Nguyen, Ben Baek and chef Tai Nguyen (no relation) has been filling up Doc Holliday's in Rice Village with a taste of Hawaii since July. Well, sort of. The bowls, conceived by chef Nguyen and prepared by the entire crew in an assembly line formation, are far from dogmatically Hawaiian. They owe at least as much to Nguyen's Vietnamese background and to Houston farms.
"We like to be very transparent about what we do," says Nguyen. Boquiren adds that Seaside is on the hunt for a brick-and-mortar restaurant location. When they do, they'll post farms featured in the bowls on a wall of the restaurant. Though salmon is currently fished in the Atlantic and will likely continue to be, Nguyen's concern about the sustainability of tuna fishery means that he's working to switch from Hawaiian-caught fish to Gulf yellowfin. Currently, the pop-up usually uses one of the other in a single week; I lucked out with both salmon and more traditional tuna available when I stopped by.
The Vietnamese influence is clear in Seaside's "classic" poke. The chopped fish (poke means "to chop" in Hawaiian) is served with Japanese touches including nori and soy sauce that are expected in Hawaii, but also the cucumber and fried garlic and shallots one would be more likely to find in a bowl of bún. Consequently, the flavors are bolder and more varied than many a typical bowl of poke.
Bowls change each week and a menu is always posted on Facebook a few days before service. Uncommon variations have included fish dressed in ponzu sauce with watermelon or orange slices. My favorite on Sunday was tuna tossed with avocado in house aioli and intensely spiced with homemade chile oil, then showered in black and white sesame seeds, scallion, fried shallots, nori and micro shiso. Eaten over a thick layer of sticky rice, it was essentially the most in-your-face chirashi bowl ever.
But the distinction of prettiest poke belonged to the PokeJang, a bowl of finely chopped tuna spicy and sweet with gochujang, combined with puffed rice, radishes and cucumber.
I admit that I've been dismissive of the poke trend. But if this is just a taste of what's to come from Seaside Poke, I'm feeling pretty darn optimistic about the future of fish in Space City.