Could the poke bowl be the new fast food? ‘Poke’ (pronounced poke-eh) is a Hawaiian raw fish dish consisting of cubed raw fish mixed with flavored sauces. This dish is the latest obsession popping up in restaurants across the country and everyone is hungry for a bite. Lucky for Triangle foodies, ZenFish Poke Bar in Durham officially opens their doors this Saturday on Ninth St. (located on the ground floor of the new Solis Apartments).
“I was in the corporate world for many years, and it was not my passion,” said Janet Lee, owner of ZenFish. “I went to a yoga class at Hot Asana in Durham and the instructor said ‘do what makes you happy.’ I went into work and put in my thirty-day notice. I signed the lease here back in November of 2015.”
If you’ve visited the west coast in the last few years then you know just how popular poke is there, but here in the Triangle we’re just getting our first taste. Our geographical and cultural distance from Hawaii meant it took a little longer for the east coast to catch on, but the dish is popular for a reason.
“I traveled to Hawaii to learn more about the traditional Hawaiian poke and to the west coast, to research on different poke,” said Lee. “There are so many poke places on the west coast and I wanted to bring some soul into my business.”
ZenFish is the first customizable poke bar to come to the Triangle. This fast-casual restaurant makes it easy to eat something on the go that is not only delicious, but nutritious as well. The concept is simple: you walk up to the counter and build-your-own poke bowl (rice or quinoa), salad (organic greens), noodles (zucchini), or burrito (wrapped in seaweed). That’s right, a poke burrito! When you don’t have two hands to enjoy your poke bowl, the burrito is the perfect solution to grab and go.
“A lot of people don’t know what poke is but they know what a burrito is, it’s a good way to introduce the community to poke,” said Janet. “My goal is to have something that everyone can find something they like, that’s why I love the customized bowls.”
Community is very important to Lee and what brings the “soul” to her business. She would like to incorporate the local community as much as possible. She sources locally when she can and works with local farmers, including MamaSprings and Funny Girl Farm.
“Eventually I want to have field trips with the Zen team to local farms so they can see where our food comes from, local brewery tours to see where local beer comes from,” said Lee. “Through this process I’ve learned so much about food and how much things cost, how much good food costs.”
Everything you see in her restaurant has been touched or made by someone local, including a gorgeous communal table by Bull City Designs and a hand-painted mural on the wall by local artist Alcrist Moreta. All of the renovations were taken care of by Redwine Renovation and Correction here in the Triangle. Local brews will be rotating on tap as well as local kombucha.
ZenFish is committed to making everything from scratch but also keeping the food cost as low as they can. They provide only the freshest fish and are currently serving Ahi Tuna from Hawaii, “which is top notch the best thing,” according to Janet, as well as Norwegian Salmon. All of their poke sauces are made in-house and they have gluten-free options as well. Chef Daniel is the master behind all the delicious sauces – “I’ve had some of these sauces that I’ve been working on for a year and a half, it was just like a perfect mix,” said Daniel.
The house sauce is Chef Daniel’s take on a traditional poke sauce, but currently everyone is raving about the truffle ponzu sauce.
“Even though as the name implies they serve fish, it’s also a really good spot for vegetarian and vegan people to eat.”
As the former chef for Juju, just down the street, Daniel brings his love of Asian food and cooking to ZenFish.
“I like working with fish more than anything else, then any other protein,” said Daniel. “Working with a lot of sashimi stuff myself at Juju I just got more and more into it. I think it’s just a good efficient smooth idea for a business, if we can do this quickly and get people this food keeping it the high quality that I like to work with then it’s a really cool thing to be able to do.”
Though they haven’t opened their doors to the public yet, the ZenFish team has been busy with their soft opening this week, and folks are loving what they’ve tasted so far. “It’s really great to have poke like this, it’s like deconstructed sushi and it’s very fast, and very fresh,” said customer Mary Katherine Moore.
Come by and support this great local business at their grand opening celebration this Saturday, March 18th. They will be open seven days a week from 11:00 AM to 9:30 PM, and hope to start their delivery service next month, poke right to your front door!