Poke doke: Poké Café hooks Dunedin with build-your-own poke bowls

Recently opened, the Dunedin cafe specializes in a Hawaiian classic on Main Street.

click to enlarge In create-your-own fashion, Poké Café's daily offerings are presented right in front of diners. - Shelbi Hayes
Shelbi Hayes
In create-your-own fashion, Poké Café's daily offerings are presented right in front of diners.

"Aloha," reads the entrance of Poké Café, new along Dunedin's Main Street.

Poke (pronounced poh-kay) isn't a stranger to restaurant menus around the region. In downtown Dunedin, The Honu has poke on its Hawaiian lineup, and a Tampa Heights poke joint called Poké Rose, from former Birchwood executive chef Jason Cline, is expected to open inside the Hall on Franklin around Jan. 1. But Poké Café, whose tagline is "it's better than sushi," is the first to exclusively specialize in the stuff.

At 1140 Main St., the 8-weeks-old cafe keeps the classic dish simple, and close to its Hawaiian roots. Build-your-own poke bowls are featured, as are poke burritos, tacos and even a separate tasting menu.

Poke is essentially raw fish that's marinated, cut up and served like a salad. Colleen Vilches, who owns the cafe alongside her chef husband Ken Gulley, describes the loaded dish as a "quick, affordable delicacy."

Gulley graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, by the way. The New Jersey native has been a chef for more than 30 years, and the craft has led him on a journey around the world. He did an externship in the Caribbean, which had his heart for a while, and he's also ventured to Canada and Alaska to cook.

However, the chef has a deep love for Asian cuisine. While going through a previous divorce, he stuffed a backpack and headed to Southeast Asia, where he spent three months traveling, exploring street foods and learning to cook the subregion's traditional cuisine.

According to Gulley, watching Andrew Zimmern, best known for hosting the TV show Bizarre Foods, influenced his travels and what he tasted, especially "trying things he shouldn't admit to."

Married in 2014, the couple met after Vilches, who is originally from Miami and has been in Dunedin since she was a young girl, swapped the corporate world for the restaurant business. They hope to hire some extra hands at Poké Café, eventually — as of now, it's just the two of them.

click to enlarge The cafe, recently opened on Dunedin's Main Street, is 8 weeks old. - Shelbi Hayes
Shelbi Hayes
The cafe, recently opened on Dunedin's Main Street, is 8 weeks old.

Here's how the bowls work: Pick a base of rice, greens or noodles. Select a protein either raw, cooked or vegan (these usually range daily from eight to 12 different types of fish, crustaceans, tofu and mollusks). Then choose the sauces and toppings (think roasted pineapple-mango salsa, wasabi cream and shaved coconut).

It's easy to see what's offered daily, since the line's modeled in the made-to-order vein of fast-casual restaurant concepts like Chipotle. Everything's presented right in front of diners.

The owners say they know how much local and fresh mean to the Bay area. Two to three times a week, they receive new seafood from downtown Dunedin's Jensen Brothers Seafood.

"If I wouldn't feed it to my mother or my wife, I wouldn't feed it to you," Gulley said.

Keeping freshness and culinary uniqueness in mind, the majority of the sauces and toppings are made in-house by the chef. From gochujang and shoyu sauces to pickled ginger to kimchi with its own spin to it, Gulley and Vilches take pride in their creations. They say they don't want a cafe that relies on pre-made items.

An eco-friendly operation was important, too. The cafe uses corn-based forks, sugarcane spoons and 78-percent recycled paperware; the duo intend to leave as small a footprint as possible.

In the new year, Poké Café will up the convenience by delivering its poke to people's doorsteps, a service that's rare for sushi-like foods. The cafe's hours — Monday and Wednesday through Sunday — might sound odd at first, but the reasoning is clear.

"Everyone else is closed on Monday," Vilches said. "If they look up 'sushi' or 'poke' on a Monday, then we'll come up."

Walking out the door, repeat what the cafe's window decal says: "Mahalo."

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