Pizitz Food Hall Preview: Ono Poké

By Scott Doty & Jessie Merlin of What to Eat in Birmingham

Photo by Yellowhammer Creative

Photo by Yellowhammer Creative

After spending time with Vinh Tran, you may find yourself wanting to start a few more businesses. He is that kind of guy. At 25, when most of his contemporaries are considering moving on to their second job, Tran is opening the innovative Ono Poké stall in the new Food Hall in The Pizitz. It is one of 17 stalls and restaurants set to open in December and January.

Poké refers to a marinated raw fish dish served in Hawaii. In its most basic form, it consists of pieces of raw fish marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, and onions. The traditional Hawaiian food dates back at least a few centuries and picked up a few Japanese influences along the way with immigrants arriving on the islands beginning in 1806. The way poké is served today shows a clear influence of Japanese cuisine both in the marinades and the use of seaweed and other traditional ingredients.

Tran moved to Hawaii in fifth grade after immigrating from Vietnam to California to live with his aunt and uncle. It was there that he discovered his uncle’s secret Poké stash on hand at all times. He was hooked. An older Vinh gained added experience to his interest in cooking behind the knife preparing sushi at his brother’s restaurant in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

Building on his childhood introduction, Tran has traveled across the country to try the best contemporary takes on Poké that he can find to continually improve his recipes. He starts with the freshest, best-tasting cuts of sushi-grade fish, showing particularity about the taste of each cut to ensure it is an A+.

Photo by Yellowhammer Creative

Photo by Yellowhammer Creative

His marinade is a secret concoction—slightly sweet and complex with well-balanced flavor. It’s not overly salty, allowing the flavors of the fish to come through. His rice boasts a slight tartness from the addition of a small amount of vinegar and light spices. Tran uses special fresh seaweed varieties imported from Hawaii that are ideal for Poké and tops it with sea salt, also imported from the islands.

Menu options include salmon, tofu, and spicy tuna in a traditional version over rice or a modern take over organic greens. Those that eat gluten free can opt to forgo the marinade. When available, he plans to include fresh taro chips (similar to potato chips) as an option; their crispness pairs nicely with the lightly sweet Poké and the slight vinegar taste of the sushi-style rice. The name Ono promises the word’s Hawaiian translation, “delicious,” our taste of Ono Poké proved it to be true.

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