Let 2017 go down as the last year you ate boring, bland, beige food.
One of my favorite new restaurants in Wichita serves food that’s exploding with colors – avocado green, ahi tuna pink, mango yellow, masago orange, Thai pepper red.
It’s called Poke Mix, and it’s one of a few poke restaurants that have opened or have announced plans to open in the Wichita area over the past year or so. Poke, which rhymes with okay, is a Hawaiian dish that’s become trendy across the country. In Wichita, Akamu Noble of the Noble House restaurant and food truck has helped the dish grow in popularity, and several restaurants serve versions of it on their menus.
But since it opened last May in the former Orange Leaf space outside the west-side Warren Theatre, 8918 W. 21st St., Poke Mix has become one of my favorite Wichita dining destinations. Not only is the food that it offers – mostly build-your-own poke bowls – different from the norm, but it’s also fresh, full of unusual textures and healthy. At least healthier.
The restaurant comes from Krispy’s Fried Chicken & Seafood owner John Nguyen and a partner, and it’s a good place to get some color back in your diet.
▪ On the menu: Poke Mix is billed as a build-your-own poke restaurant, which is different from Noble House, whose focus is more broad and contains a long list of Hawaiian-style dishes. Those who choose to assemble their own bowls first choose a base of either lettuce or white or brown rice or chips. (Sushi burritos, wrapped in seaweed and rice, also are an option.)
Next, diners choose a protein: raw ahi tuna, salmon, smoked salmon, shrimp or octopus. Then, they can go crazy adding toppings, and the options are endless and flavorful: green onions, grated ginger, Thai peppers, garlic, jalapenos, nori, pickled ginger, tempura pearls, edamame, seaweed salad, corn, avocado, kim-chi – even Hot Cheetos. It’s all bound together by a sauce of choice, like Japanese mayo, ponzu, spicy shoyu and eel sauce.
Too timid to mix your own? Poke Mix also has lists a few pre-determined recipes for you, like the Sunset, which includes red onions, green onions, mango, masago, edamame, cucumber, crab salad, tempura pearls and “sunset sauce.”
Also available: a Hawaiian snack known as Spam musubi plus drinks like Thai tea and Vietnamese ice coffee. Poke Mix also has one of the best ice cream treats ever: Taiwanese shaved ice, a ribbon-like frozen creation with a creamy ice cream texture.
▪ Don’t-miss dishes: I get the same thing every time I go on to Poke Mix, and when I’m not eating it, I’m counting the days until I can eat it again. I order a large build-your-own bowl (I decided after the first two visits that a small just would not do.) I start with a base of warm brown rice then top it with ahi tuna, green onions, grated ginger and cucumbers. For sauce, I choose the spicy mayo and the Poke Mix sauce (which is like soy sauce) and I finish it with a few scoops of crab salad, avocado and edamame. I just discovered on my last visit that I should ask for a sprinkling of sesame seeds mixed with dried pepper as a topping because it leaves a nice mild burn buzzing on my lips when I’m finished.
This bowl has all the ingredients I love, and it’s so flavorful that I don’t even add any extra soy sauce – very unusual for me with any rice- or noodle-based bowl. The textures all work together nicely, too – the delicate chew of the tuna mixed with the firmness of the edamame and the creaminess of the avocado. And when I stir it all together, the warm rice plays nicely off the cold fish.
My friend, who’s a bit of a health nut, also loves Poke Mix, and she assembles a bowl that’s extra healthy. Instead of rice, she gets salad as the base and then chooses toppings like seaweed salad, kim-chi and pickled ginger. The extra crunch, spice and flavor keep her from feeling deprived.
The mixes come in nifty plastic bowls with attached, fold-over lids, and I’ve been tempted to save, wash and reuse them to bring salads to work.
During one visit, we decided we’d better sample the Spam musubi, which sits piled and individually plastic-wrapped right by the cash register. I’m certainly no fan of Spam, but I figured I’d better get the full Hawaiian experience. Spam musubi, a popular snack on the islands, is made by layering grilled spam and egg on top of a bed of rice and wrapping it together with a band of nori, or seaweed. It wasn’t offensive –and it was a good reminder that Spam is not quite as awful as I remember. Though I was glad I sampled it (at a risk of only $2.50), it’s not going to become a regular in my snack rotation.
I will, however, order the restaurant’s Taiwanese shaved ice whenever I have a chance. If you haven’t ever tried it, it’s hard to describe the pleasing, melt-in-your-mouth texture of this ice cream treat. We ordered the mango flavor (green tea, taro, strawberry and milk also are options), and it was also topped with a generous serving of fresh mango. My health-conscious friend and I were having a full-fledged spoon war by the time we worked our way to the bottom of the bowl.
▪ Ambience: Poke Mix owners transformed the Orange Leaf nicely, covering the back wall that once was filled with orange mosaic tiles and yogurt dispensers with multi-shaded wood panels and clocks showing the times in various poke-friendly locales across the globe. The dining room is full of tables and chairs, though they don’t quite fit together. The chairs are too short for the tables, and we always feel like the tabletops hit us in the chest.
One other oddity to note: Poke Mix almost always has a noticeable fishy aroma when you walk in the door, and that’s been true of all poke restaurants I’ve visited. You forget about it after you’ve been inside for a couple of minutes.
▪ Price range: Poke bowls are $8.99 for a regular or $10.49 for a large. Taiwanese shaved ice is $3.99 for two toppings or $5.99 for three.
▪ Service: Poke Mix is set up like Chipotle, where customers walk down a line and point at what they want. But the bowls take a little longer to assemble, as employees mix them up by hand in separate bowls. Sometimes, the line takes a bit longer than you’d think, but it’s always worth the wait.
If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.
Where: 8918 W. 21st St., 316-831-7716
Type of food: Poke bowls, sushi burritos, Taiwanese shaved ice
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily