3 out of 5 stars
1140 Main St., Dunedin. Poke: $7.50-$13.75; sides: $2-$4. 727-871-7653; pokecafedunedin.com.
Aloha! Welcome to the Hawaiian paradise of Dunedin. Strange as it may seem, with the addition of Poké Café, there are now three restaurants focused on bringing the culinary bounty of our 50th state to the charming Pinellas County city usually associated with bagpipes.
While The Honu and Ohana Cafe offer a range of Hawaiian favorites, Poké (poh-kay) Café specializes. It's chef Ken Gulley's playground for fish salad. Gulley, a CIA-trained chef who brings the hot new trend from out west to Tampa Bay, and his wife Colleen Vilches run the mom-and-pop shop that's tucked away in the corner of a small shopping center on Main Street just east of downtown.
In addition to three sizes of poke bowls, they offer "gigantic poke burritos, loaded poke tacos and a succulent poke tasting menu." This fast-food fusion offers super-fast service at affordable prices. What's great is that everything is made fresh daily and assembled before your eyes.
The chef heats up a giant tortilla, slaps it on the counter and then begins the wonderful creation. He piles on a huge serving of rice (Thai jasmine or California brown) or sesame noodles, two types of poke (from 14 options on a good day — more on this later), a bit of kale, scallions, house-made kimchi for some bite, then huge fresh slices of creamy avocado, some unnamed crunchies and a sprinkling of togarashi spice. He expertly folds and rolls the giant, fat burrito, and I can feel myself salivating like Pavlov's pooch. With one skilled diagonal slice of the knife, plus a small serving of fresh pineapple-mango salsa, our burrito is ready to satisfy at least two hungry diners.
Regardless of the poke protein you prefer, this is an inspired flavor and texture mashup because the avocado is seductive and the kimchi awakens your taste buds. Even more exciting are the café's three house-made sauces, which are simply superb. In my experience, wasabi is usually as subtle as a bucking bronco; the same can be true of gochujang, the kick-ass hot pepper of Korean cuisine. But Gulley tames both for Western diners. They have a creamy texture and plenty of flavorful punch without sacrificing their complexity. I usually avoid too much heat because I find that it can throw a dish out of balance and overwhelm less assertive ingredients. In this case, the opposite it true. Though the flavor is alive, you don't "feel the burn," and his eel sauce is equally layered — far superior to what you can buy commercially.
You may also choose variations on this theme by choosing to fill three crunchy corn taco shells, or loading a poke bowl with one (Lil Kahuna), two (Big Kahuna) or three scoops (Lei it on Me).
The three sauces also anchor the poke tasting, where you may sample five, seven or nine spoons along with one side. We enjoy sesame noodles topped with bright green scallion tops, crispy garlic and onions, and some paper-thin slices of aromatic house-pickled ginger to cleanse the palate between bites.
Surrounding our noodle-filled cardboard rectangular container at the center of the platter are seven teardrop-shaped spoons, each filled with a different poke mix. On the day we descend, these are the remaining flavors.
Given the casual, low-frills nature of the café, the presentation is still eye-catching. While the spoons are on a red plastic tray topped with white parchment, the array of seafood is artfully arranged to resemble a star wrapping the noodles on three sides, with a trio of sauces at the top.
Our taste combo showcases three tuna variations, two kinds of salmon and a pair of shellfish treatments. Bite-size cubes of fish are like tiny dice, the perfect size to practice chopstick skills. We owe it to world culture and cuisine to make an attempt to recreate the dining experience that reflects authentic practice in a gastronomic region of origin. Despite my modest facility with these ancient Asian implements, I'm quite proud of my ability to move fish successfully to my mouth. I encourage you to practice, practice, practice to place yourself within the tradition. The more we learn to experience cuisine as locals, the more memorable a meal can be.
The fish is all fresh and beautiful. Deep red ahi tuna is featured in a trio of coatings: shoyu (soy), spicy and wasabi; the fatty coral-hued salmon spoons are honey miso and spicy shoyu.
Luckily, we get a change of texture with smoky, small bay scallops, as well as a complete change of pace from house-made kimchi mussels. Although every poke has its own appeal, at least for this sampling, the flavors are not too bold. This is a good thing, because the star is the fish, but it also means that differences in the spoons are subtle. I'd recommend including as many variations in the fish selections as possible. Gulley has poke variations up his sleeve using escolar, amberjack, shrimp, mackerel, octopus and calamari. And for a tasting to be successful, variation is the welcome theme.
If you're a sushi fan looking for a new twist, do the café poke and turn yourself around.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.