AC Date Night: Mongers and Café No Sé
Poke two ways
If you had asked me at 6 years old what my favorite food was, I probably would have said sashimi. Reared in the islands of Micronesia, I curiously explored an abundance of Asian-Pacific flavors at a very young age – and my love for this cuisine has only grown. So, naturally, I'm thrilled that several Austin restaurants are luring in diners with their respective takes on poke, a classic Hawaiian appetizer that incorporates some of my most-craved ingredients.
The raw fish salad is traditionally a simple dish containing cubed raw fish tossed with seaweed, kukui nuts, and sweet Maui onions – simple, assuming kukui nuts are native to your hometown. Japanese influences, like soy sauce, sesame oil, and scallions, have made a popular preparation since the Seventies. New wave pokes might feature kale and pomegranate, be served with tortilla chips, or substitute avocado and cucumber for a veg version. Any way it's served, if it's on the menu, I've got to try it. That's why I suggested Mongers Market + Kitchen for a lady date last weekend.
In addition to the raw-bar regular, Mongers often offers a rotating poke as well. The night I went in, a spicy aïoli-based poke was on the chalkboard, but I opted for the more familiar shoyu, scallion, macadamia, and ogo (a type of sea moss called for in authentic recipes). Earlier that day, my girlfriend realized she had double-booked herself and had to cancel. I don't often dine alone at full-service restaurants, but I modified the 8pm reservation and succumbed, not unhappily, to the fact that I would have to polish off the poke all by myself.
Sitting on a bar stool at the window, sipping brut bubbles, I watched the intermittent parade of a Friday night on East Cesar Chavez. I smelled the sesame before turning to see the server delivering my order. The seasoned ahi was piled into a vessel made from Bibb lettuce leaves, resting atop a bed of crushed ice. I alternated between composing mini lettuce wraps and using the supply of saltines to consume what was in reality too much poke for one person. But I'm not complaining.
The following night, my boyfriend, a chef, was unexpectedly off work early for a Saturday. I casually proposed dinner at Café No Sé. I had been researching their big eye tuna poke bowl in recent days (okay, I had been salivating over images on Yelp) and obviously hadn't gotten my fill the night before. No Sé throws Castelvetrano olives and pistachios into the mix, then gives it a Texas kick with pickled jalapeño and grapefruit. Presented more like a rice bowl, on brown rice and with puffed prawn chips, this dish would have suited the prior evening's party of one. It was also perfect for sharing though, and we were more than satisfied after also splitting the most incredible cheeseburger we'd had in recent memory. I wasn't even mad that the pickles weren't dill.
If I could have done either of these dates differently, I would have been stood up (just teasing, gurl!) at Café No Sé, and I'd have devoured that big eye bowl by my lonesome. And I would have chosen to share the more homogeneous appetizer at Mongers with another stomach. But as more Austin restaurants and food trucks are catching on to this fresh sea snack, I know I've got options. (My current tally is up to nine.) Just be sure to bring the Wrigley's to that first date. Unless you think tuna breath is a turn-on. I'm still deciding.