Healthy, high-quality fast food
finds a foothold in Monterey
Fresh additions to the Monterey food scene: From left, Joey Nguyen and James Anderson
The Poke Lab Bowl
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CAMILLA M. MANN
Restaurateur Joey Nguyen opened The Poke Lab earlier this year with the goal of delivering something still relatively uncommon in downtown Monterey: fresh, light and sophisticated fast food made from local ingredients that would match the community’s yen for high-quality dining options.
“There aren’t many choices on a lunch break besides burgers or burritos,” explains executive chef James Anderson. “Not everyone has an hour to sit down. We’re quick with an approachable price.”
Some other imports that the restaurant has brought to the downtown Monterey food scene are youth—Nguyen is just 33 and Anderson, 28—as well as hipness: you might think you were in San Francisco when you see the line going out the door.
But since speedy service is a key part of The Poke Lab’s reason for being, Nguyen and Anderson make sure the queue moves fast—during lunch, I was 12 deep in a line that snaked outside, yet I was eating within 15 minutes.
“Even with a long line,” says Nguyen, “people get through quickly.”
What’s more, soon Nguyen and Anderson will unveil grab-and-go options so that customers can skip the line altogether. They’re just working out how to package them in an earth-friendly way.
Traditionally, poke—pronounced “POH-kay,” meaning “to slice into pieces” is a fish salad. Native Hawaiians sliced raw fish, mixing in salt, seaweed and chopped kukui nuts. Hawaiian fish markets, where Monterey native Nguyen discovered poke on trips to visit family, all have their own recipes; endless variations in flavors and textures exist.
The Poke Lab’s three signature bowls are the Poke Lab, with spicy tuna, ahi tuna, salmon and avocado; the Citrus Salmon, with edamame and avocado; and the Vegetarian, with tofu, edamame, shiitakes and avocado. The Market Bowl changes with the seasons, and the I’ll Leave it to You is a chef’s choice, which Anderson can use to test new items. Diners can also order the Build Your Own bowl. Like an artist’s palette, the array of choices provided by the restaurant includes carmine ahi, vibrant orange masago (capelin roe), purple-tinged tako (octopus) and creamy green avocado.
It may seem surprising for Anderson, whose previous gigs at Affina Food + Wine and La Bicyclette in Carmel were more fine dining in emphasis, to decide to head a casual kitchen.
But his first local job was at Roy’s, where he prepared sashimi. Fine-dining touches to the poke bowls include from-scratch sauces and dressings. And, to minimize waste, Anderson house-cures salmon belly bacon with the leftovers from the salmon they prep.
Through established relationships, Anderson is connecting local purveyors to The Poke Lab. Though daikon isn’t traditional, Anderson uses daikon from Hollister’s Coke Farm as an onion alternative. Moss Landing’s Monterey Bay Seaweeds grows seaweed specifically for him. With desired characteristics in mind, they settled on ogo, a sea moss eaten in coastal Japan and Hawaii. Real Good Fish’s smoked black cod will be The Poke Lab’s first cooked fish option.
Though The Poke Lab is still new, it’s already developed a fierce following. Customers from Carmel make the trip over the hill several times a week.
“It’s not just about the food,” says Nguyen. “I want people to come, see a smiling face and have a great experience.” One customer echoed that sentiment.
“We’ve probably been here eight times since they opened,” says Brian Garneau. “It’s consistent and the quality is always fresh.”
Camilla M. Mann is a food writer, photographer, adventurer and passionate cook. She blogs at culinary-adventures-with-cam.blogspot.com and lives in Seaside.
The Poke Lab
475 Alvarado St., Monterey
Camilla M. Mann has crammed a lot of different jobs into four decades: florist, waitress, SCUBA divemaster, stock photo agency manager, stroller fitness teacher, writer, editor, and au pair. But, if she had to distill who she is today – tree-hugging, veggie-crunching, jewelry-designing mean mommy who loves to cook but hates to clean. Thankfully her husband and their boys clean like champs. Her current culinary goal: grow conscientious, creative kids with fearless palates! She blogs at culinary-adventures-with-cam.blogspot.com