Funny how true love has a way of bringing life into full, razor-sharp focus. Will Yan had worked in Bay Area kitchens for much of his youth and early adulthood when he made that fateful dish for his date, Pinky. Up until that night, he had considered cooking a hobby—something he happily did to help his family, who for years had owned multiple Asian style eateries across the San Francisco area.
“I made some simple comfort food: salad, a steak, and some noodle soup,” Yan said. “I served it at home. It was our first date.”
The pair had previously met while hiking the famous Dragon’s Back Trail in Hong Kong. They were both living in the bustling city, where Yan worked as a business development manager.
“My family had told me not to go into the restaurant business; they wanted me to go to school and be a white-collar guy,” Yan said. “But when I made that dish for Pinky, everything changed. She gave me a smile that I could never forget.”
Joined by that delicious meal, the couple married and set out for a new life together. That was nearly two years ago. Now, they’re multiplying smiles in SLO with their restaurant Poke Chef. Nestled in a California Boulevard strip mall near the Tacos de Acapulco joint and Emily’s Cinnamon Rolls now exists a pick-your-own-poke adventure.
“Together with my wife, we’ve written a new page on what cooking can mean,” Yan said. “The concept was to serve up what’s being called ‘mainland poke.’ It’s in all the food magazines and really taking off right now.”
As it turns out, SLO has been waiting for its own poke invasion. During my interview, throngs of students, foodies, and business people got their fix of fresh, raw sushi-grade fish dressed in bright, tangy sauces.
“Someone told me they had been waiting five years for poke to come to SLO,” Yan said. “When I can bring happiness and value to even one person, it’s all worth it.”
Part of the eatery’s success is in its quick service model and amazing flexibility. Want to check it out but not sure how it all works? A quick crash course: For a bowl, pick your base: white or brown rice, tortilla chips, kale or mixed greens (or a mixture of two bases, if you’re feeling fickle).
Next, choose two (for a small bowl), three (for a medium), or four (large) proteins, including ahi tuna, spicy ahi tuna, salmon, albacore, cooked shrimp, scallop, chicken breast, or shiitake mushroom.
Next step? Add interest and texture with mix-ins like cucumber, carrot, edamame, corn, green onion, and jalapeño. Finally, pick your sauces, which range from mild to hot, and include gluten-free options: (house ponzu, unagi, miso-miso, lemon ginger, spicy mayo, wasabi cream, tangy bomber, or fireball).
Toppings include crispy onion, garlic chips, dried cranberries, sesame seeds, mango, avocado, crab salad, and kimchi, and the list rolls on. Want any of those combinations served as a “burrito” wrapped in a perfectly level layer of white rice and nori? Just say the word. Note: I highly recommend trying the sushi burrito with mango and avocado—it is life changing.
The chef said he’s well aware that he’s not selling “traditional” Hawaiian poke, but his creative mainland style is just as fresh and prepared with a reverence for tradition. That means driving to the Bay Area three times a week to shop the best fish markets and cutting each premium fillet into perfectly sized cubes (too large or too small and you loose the delicate texture).
“Traditional Hawaiian poke offers up just a few kinds of fish, tuna, or octopus in a light Hawaiian soy sauce. Over here with the mainland poke, we have more to offer: more fish, more vegetables, more sauces; salmon, tuna, albacore, shrimp, scallops. People in SLO are loving the variety.”
It all comes back to love for Will and Pinky—from the care they take preparing their soon-to-be famous fish to the avocado tree growing from seed right there at the cash register (it was the best Hass avocado Will had ever had).
“I was in the corporate world for such a long time. Now, I’ve found the real meaning of sharing happiness,” Yan said. “I wanted to create something I could share with everyone, while also bringing a new culture to SLO.”