If I could wave my gilded fork from my Critic’s Throne and make a wish come true, today’s would be to give people the courage to try raw fish. If you made a face reading that sentence, I’m talking to you.
Most avoiders offer weirdness of concept as a barrier, to which I’d point out the widespread Western taste for dishes like beef carpaccio or steak tartare. Call it tuna tartare and have a go.
Fresh fish is like meat on the tongue, but lighter, with a suggestion of the sea. Different types of uncooked sushi-grade seafood have varying textures, richness levels, and echoes of the ocean.
What they all have in common is the absence of nasty, dead-fish-at-the-beach stank. Mildness, gentle flavors and subtlety are their characteristic aspects. Still not convinced? That’s fine, because enjoying yourself at Fresh Catch Poke Co. doesn’t mean you have to eat raw fish – or any fish at all.
Poke translates roughly into “chopped into pieces.” It’s the name of a native Hawaiian preparation, ascribed to anglers simply seasoning trim and off-cuts, usually applied to fish or octopus.
In Hawaii, it mixed with Asian touches like shoyu (soy sauce) and nutty, aromatic toasted sesame oil, becoming a lunch counter and cookout staple. In the United States, a minor poke craze has put this sushi-adjacent offering on lots of menus.
Fresh Catch, opened by Michael Tobin in January, crosses poke with rice and salad bowls, its Chipotle-style build-it-as-you-go approach allowing fine-tuning the mix of greens, grains, proteins, sauces and crunchy bits ad infinitum. The contrasts – crunchy, salty, spicy, tangy – can result in delightfully distinctive meals.
Standard bowls ($10.95) are fine for slight appetites, but I’d go for the extra scoop of protein in the large ($13.95).
First, choose a foundation. Jasmine rice and greens need no introduction. Bamboo rice is chewier short-grain rice, green from bamboo chlorophyll. Cauliflower rice is raw cauliflower grains.
But what about the fish? Hawaiian ahi tuna and Faroe Island salmon are standards on the raw list, and lately yellowtail has replaced marlin.
The tuna reminded me of rare steak, from a bite that nudged your lobster tail on an order of surf-and-turf. Salmon is its richer cousin, with a buttery aspect and fuller sea flavor. There’s usually at least one seafood special, like swordfish pickled with dill, jalapeno and ginger, which reminded me favorably of pickled herring run wild.
Start with the chicken if you’re a poke agnostic, or tofu if you’re eating animal-free. The poultry is poached chicken breast, like you would see in chicken salad. Tofu is simply cubed soybean curd, an empty canvas to soak up sauces. Fresh Catch also offers the meekest seafood of all, poached quarter-sized shrimp.
Choose from a scoop of bright green fresh soybeans, imitation crab salad, seaweed salad, pineapple or avocado ($1 upcharge). Then four from 15 toppings, like cucumber, scallion, sweet potato, kimchi, flying fish roe, watermelon radish, corn, and wasabi peas.
Pick a sauce, and tell the bowl-maker when you’ve had enough. (You can always add more later.) Seven choices range from classic Asian best-hits (sesame shoyu) to salty citrus (ponzu), spicy-sweet (mustard), and spicy-rich (chile mayonnaise). There's also my favorite, spicy Korean pepper, with the smoky punch of gochujang, fermented chile paste, so moving it makes tofu taste good.
The final touch is an offering of crunchy toppers: shredded coconut, sesame seeds, toasted seaweed flakes, fried shallots, and in a defiant departure from the healthy vibe, crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
It may take a few tries to suit your taste, but it’s worth it to lock in a relatively healthy, diverting satisfaction. (The most calorically transgressive component available is the spicy mayonnaise, which starts with house-made mayonnaise.)
Or make it easy and check one of the standard combinations or weekly specials. Chef Vathanathavone Inthalasy, who developed a following for his pan-Asian soul food at Kaydara Noodle Bar, has a knack for arrangements, and makes most of the sauces himself.
Besides bowls, there’s few other offerings. Soup, usually miso, and minor sweets (2/$5) like French-style macaron sandwich cookies or small ice cream mochi, lozenges of ice cream in a capsule of chewy pounded rice. Soft drinks include sodas, fresh-pressed juices and kombucha. Alcohol comes in sake, beer, both Hawaiian ($5) and draft ($6), and wine by the glass and bottle ($5/$20).
Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday, with grain-and-fruit acai bowls ($8.50-$11), stuffed avocado halves ($6) and various styles of avocado toast ($6-$9).
The choices are limited, but what is here is quality. Once you try Fresh Catch Poke Co., you might find your mind returning to the experience, mentally retracing your bowl-building steps. There’s always a different way your meal could turn out. That’s the catch.
Fresh Catch Poke Co. – 7 plates (out of 10)
Location: 5933 Main St. (271-7653, freshcatchpoke.co)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: bowls, $10.95 to $14.95; sides, soup and dessert, $3-$5; brunch, $6 to $11.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free: gluten-free soy sauce available.