by Jovelle Tamayo
(This article was originally published on the Seattle Globalist and has been reprinted with permission)
The neon sign is on and fresh fish from Hawaii has been delivered to the first brick-and-mortar location of Sam Choy’s Poké to the Max in Seattle’s Hillman City. They arrive in preparation for the restaurant’s Saturday’s soft opening at 10 a.m.
Poké to the Max, a concept restaurant opened by celebrity chef Sam Choy and his partner, local entrepreneur Max Heigh, entered the Seattle food scene in August of 2013 with the launch of their first food truck and a selection of fresh poké dishes. (Poké, which means to cut or slice in Hawaiian, is essentially a sashimi salad, which was originally popularized in Hawaii as an appetizer).
Known as the “godfather” of poké by foodies, Choy prides himself in the freshness, quality and authenticity of his food — from the fresh Hawaiian fish flown in daily to the restaurant’s farm-to-table values.
“Really, this is an opportunity to take poké to where sushi and sashimi have gone,” says the 2004 James Beard Award winner about opening his first stationary Poké to the Max in Seattle.
The stationary location offers the same full menu as the three trucks and food cart, but with add-on items like the ahi tuna steak, roadside garlic shrimp, teriyaki boneless short ribs and poké tacos.
“You have to develop the atmosphere and the concept, but with the intention of growth in the menu,” Choy noted.
The restaurant also plans to introduce items like a “make-it-yourself” poké, packaged together in a kit with fresh fish, sauces and garnishes.
Heigh and Choy are considering expanding their brick-and-mortar locations to areas throughout Western Washington and the Puget Sound Area, including Kirkland, West Seattle and Tacoma.
Since launching the business three years ago, Max and Choy have built a loyal team, including manager Rea Pineda and lead chef Nguyen Nguyen, who’s worked around the city elevating Asian cuisine at popular restaurants and bars like Ba Bar, a popular Vietnamese joint in Capitol Hill.
Pineda, who has worked on the trucks since 2014, looks forward to seeing some regular customers eat at the stationary location.
Before Poké to the Max moved into 5300 Rainier Avenue South, a number of restaurants passed through, including Grecian Delight, Isla de la Mojito, Kawayan Grille and the beloved Kawali Grill, home to Filipino favorites.
Heigh, whose family owns businesses across Seattle through their company Filo Foods, credits the diversity of South Seattle as the main draw to the new location in Hillman City.
“I grew up around the area,” Heigh said. “I love the diversity. There’s everything: a lot of Islanders, a lot of Filipinos, Ethiopian. You name it, it’s here.”
Heigh said they food they serve is a reflection of the diversity of South Seattle and Hawaii.
While Choy often visits Seattle to work with Heigh, he spends most of his time home in Hawaii working with farmers, lecturing, and filming a new cooking show called “Sam Choy’s in the Kitchen” for KHON2 TV, a Fox affiliate in Hawaii.
“Sam Choy’s Poké to the Max,” a documentary on Choy and Heigh’s business, the culture and history of poke, the ethics of fishing, and more will screen during Seattle International Film Festival at Ark Lodge Cinema on June 4 and at Uptown Theater on June 5. (You can read more about it in The Stranger.)
“You always got to remember it’s easy to create things, but you have to come full circle on it,” Choy said.
Poke to the Max had its soft opening on Saturday at 5300 Rainier Avenue South in Hillman City. The restaurant will begin operating at normal hours — Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. — starting on Tuesday, May 10. The three trucks will continue to operate at its usual hours and locations.