Hawaiian chef’s poke chain opens up shop in Kirkland

Chain offers Kirkland marina-goers fresh fish in Hawaiian marinades.

Famed chef Sam Choy, known in the restaurateur world as “The Godfather of Poke,” has officially opened up a Sam Choy Poke to the Max location near Kirkland’s Marina Park.

Situated between Bodies by Kristina Pilates and Wow Wow Hawaiian Lemonade , the marina spot is the chain’s third sit-down location in Washington (with a fourth location in SeaTac on the way). There are also three Poke to the Max food trucks that roam the Puget Sound area, posting up in spots like the downtown Bellevue pod or the University of Washington Bothell campus.

Jeff Santos, who produced a mini documentary on Choy and the history of poke that screened at the 2018 Seattle Asian American Film Festival, is the Kirkland franchise owner. Santos has been working closely with Choy’s business partner Max Heigh.

Choy started his Poke to the Max brand back in 2011 with a Seattle food truck, considered to be among the first poke-only establishments in the city then, and has since expanded into California, maintaining one San Bruno sit-in location and one California food truck. Poke to the Max, however, is far from Choy’s first foray into serving up the island favorite; he’s been pioneering poke in Hawaii for decades.

“[Choy’s] been on Food Network, and was really one of the biggest chefs to come out of Hawaii,” Santos said. “He’s a James Beard [Foundation Award] winner, and using those Food Network connections, he was able to bring poke into the mainstream.”

For years now, fast-casual poke spots have been turning a native Hawaiian staple into a trendy phenomenon for the continental United States — first along the coasts, and now even in mid-sized Midwestern cities. There are innumerable ways to eat poke (pronounced “poh-kay”), but the basic premise of the dish revolves around sashimi-grade cuts of raw fish adorned with an assemblage of toppings and sides.

“The poke comes pre-marinated, ready for the customers, and they can choose from rice, spinach wrap, poke salad or tacos,” Santos said, adding that the pre-marination method is closer to how the dish is traditionally prepared in the Aloha State.

Choy’s “Pacific Rim Cuisine” offers plenty of other Hawaiian staples like loco moco — a dish with many variations but consisting most commonly of white rice, a hamburger patty, fried egg and brown gravy — and a special fish and chips recipe only available at the Kirkland location.

Another thing differentiating the Kirkland location from others is that it will adhere to halal food guidelines. Santos said that this move to provide more options to the area’s Muslim community does not drastically change the overall menu.