Pacific Bowls & Rolls began life as The Poke Lab, but entrepreneur Greg Ahn (Folktale, 7th & Dolores, ABV and soon-to-open Rise & Roam) thought it was just the kind of business he wanted to have in downtown Monterey, so he bought the place in February of 2019. It reopened in June of this year as Pacific Bowls & Rolls with much of the staff remaining, including GM Katie Martinez, whose smile is almost as big as her heart.
Martinez describes the place as a fast, casual concept that emphasizes values like ethically and sustainably raised protein sources, pointing out that all poultry is sourced from Mary’s Chicken and all meat from Niman Ranch. “Poke Lab established great sources for sustainable seafood, partnering with Monterey Seafood Watch right from the outset, and we’re just building on that ethic. We want to be responsible citizens of the community and of the planet,” she says.
While it might be described as fast casual, this is no fast food joint. Instead of a burger and fries, you can grab an entirely wholesome meal to go in a matter of seconds. You can even order online for pickup or, in many neighborhoods, delivery by ChowNow.
Modest in size and appointments, PBR offers a wealth of food options aimed squarely at folks who give a great deal of thought to what goes into their bodies. If you have food allergies, this place is for you, because it is thoughtfully run by people who have a great deal of respect for their own health.
Says Martinez, “I have a finicky stomach myself, so I am very sensitive to food allergies. We want to help people eat the kind of food that is not only good for them, but makes them feel good, too.”
Martinez notes that they’ve developed a diversified menu for an equally diversified audience. “There are lots of non-seafood eaters, so we have vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free items. We use tamari instead of soy sauce. Some people are allergic to shellfish. We’re an allergy sensitive restaurant. We want to only serve the kind of food that will make each customer feel good.”
Owner Greg Ahn, certainly had a hand in shaping the food profile here. He’s from LA and wanted to merge his love of Asian street food with California fresh. The logo, fittingly, is a melding of that cool SoCal vibe with Japanese-style waves. As you can see from the menu, it goes way beyond traditional poke, gathering flavorful inspiration from Japanese, Chinese and Korean culinary staples.
The real beauty of this place is that you can build your own meal, any way you want. First, choose a delivery device: rice bowl, nori roll, salad or baguette. Then select a protein base like garlic ginger tofu, soy marinated chicken, BBQ pork belly, sesame roasted carrots, avocado or kalbi style BBQ beef, after that pile on awesomeness with kimchi, radish, bean sprouts, pickled ginger, carrots, jalapeno, wakame (seaweed) or edamame. Extras like avocado, poached egg and masago (smelt roe), can be had for $1.50/each.
Your choice of sauces includes the special PBR sauce, miso mayo, sesame ponzu, wasabi mayo, spicy mayo, sweet soy sauce or chile vinegar. Then it gets topped off with something crunchy, like spicy peanuts, crispy garlic or crispy onion. You can also create your own Nori roll, baguette or salad by selecting the desired ingredients.
They’ll also offer some signature dishes, like short rib Korean bibimbap, a rice bowl with succulent smoky short ribs, silky smooth poached egg, crunchy bean sprouts, and satisfying kimchee, all atop crunchy warm rice. Try the Happy Piggy banh mi, with pork belly, carrots, radishes, cucumber, jalapeño, pickled ginger and miso mayo on a baguette. As soon as Rise +Roam, the new bakery in the Folktale stable, gets fired up, the baguettes will be baked there.
So, whether you bowl it or roll it, the friendly staff will ensure you end up with a mouthwatering and satisfying experience.
One of the friendly staffers is Jennifer Wulf, who has been with Folktale for three years, and recently moved from a job in accounting to working here in the kitchen at PBR. Her husband is a sous chef at 7D and she’s a big fan of everything chef Todd Fisher turns out. She’s also grateful for the opportunity to learn the inner workings of a restaurant operation, thanks to Greg Ahn’s ingenious incubator philosophy. She and her husband have aspirations to have their own restaurant some day.
Says Wulf, “I love the food here. It’s an awesome place to work. I love meeting all the different people that come in. The vibe here, with the constant evening foot traffic, is a lot like American Graffiti! Clean eating is becoming really important, and I love helping customers build something that meets their needs. It’s very gratifying to me. After all, we can’t function without food!”
She’s really fond of the tamari lemongrass chicken and has been enjoying making her own hand rolls. She also highly recommends the ginger tofu, which comes from Berkeley.
Should you want to eat in, there are plenty of modest low tables which are perfect for families. Sit facing the street, so you can take in the unique tourist meets local scene of Alvarado Street, a place that’s become increasingly rich in culinary offerings.
Teaching kids to eat healthy is easy here. They’ll love choosing their own ingredients for the perfect bowl or roll. Most likely, they’ll love the sticky rice pudding for dessert.
And, with each purchase of a meal, you are helping to feed others. Through Pacific Bowls & Rolls Buy One, Give One program, for every bowl or roll purchased, the company donates one meal to feed a hungry child in America through a partnership with No Kid Hungry.
Dishes to come include spring rolls – the original Asian burrito! Laughs GM Martinez, “Expect lettuce wraps! I love lettuce wraps. This will make it easier for people who don’t want to mess with forks.”
They’re also playing with new dessert items, like mochi, a Japanese rice cake, and potentially an ice cream sandwich made with a fried rice crisp “cookie.”
“We’re just a bunch of foodies making food for people who appreciate good, clean food!” she says.
Come roll your own, or choose one of the PBR classics. Either way, you’re going to eat good, feel good and, hopefully, do good. But that’s entirely up to you.
Pacific Bowls & Rolls, 475 Alvarado St. Monterey pacificbowlsandrolls.com Open M-Sa 11:30am – 8pm
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.