If Philadelphia’s summer of dining 2016 had any unique themes, it would be the growth spurt in cool, affordable Philadelphia restaurants specializing in Japanese ramen and Hawaiian rice dishes. Both overall concepts — the Japanese meal of wheat noodles served in a meat- or-fish-based broth, the Hawaiian brown rice bowl known as poke (pronounced “po-kay”) done with chunks of fish or veggies — are exotic, yet familiar to diners, young and old. While rice and fish is a staple of a sushi lover’s diet, what student hasn’t chowed down on the cheap-but-hearty, store-bought version of ramen?
“Ramen has always been popular, but we’re hoping to expose new customers to the high quality and simplicity of this Japanese comfort food,” says Patrick Hughes, the director of operations for Sakura Dining Corp., the Philly company whose holdings include Asian culinary concepts Hai Street Kitchen, Wok Street and Liberty Place’s brand new hot spot, Ai-Ramen. Ai fits nicely with famed noodle joints such as CHeU Noodle Bar, to say nothing of Philly’s other brand new noodler, Chinatown’s Yamitsuki, the mod-designed Arch Street restaurant from Tango’s Kenny Poon and Nom Nom Ramen’s Alan Su that features a life-sized Iron Man in its front window.
“Serving a solely poke menu — which is based on the concept of diced fish and healthy eating — is something that hasn’t been seen in Philly before us,” says Mahmoud Chaabane, the Tunisia-born owner/server at Poke Bowl in Northern Liberties, Philly’s only all-poke restaurant. That exclusivity won’t last for long, as Poon’s upcoming Chinatown Square food court at 1020 Race St. will host a Philly Poke. Still, that won’t steal the shine from Chaabane’s bright white poke nosh spot complete with fun graphics (a large “eat more fish” design on its kitchen wall) and healthful menu that, like Ai-Ramen, allows the diner to choose all of their own bowl options. (Ai-Ramen’s Hughes states too that his Liberty Place locale is unique in its all-natural concept “because not all ramen restaurants use all-natural ingredients.”)
“We love that we can offer an affordable, high quality product,” says Hughes. While Ai-Ramen offers spicy miso ramen with chili, umami-based miso butter ramen with pork-chicken broth, and garlic butter and miso and vegetarian ramen with ginger soy broth and steamed vegetables, it is the signature Ai ramen with strips of chashu pork, red ginger, green scallion and sticky seasoned egg that is the focus. “I’d eat that right now,” says Hughes.
“I moved around the world and studied to be an engineer until I wound up in L.A. until poke turned my head around,” says Chaabane of his former home, a city that happens to have a wealth of diced fish, veggies and white/brown rice options. “When moved to Philly I was looking to find my niche — Poke Bowl is that.” You can look on the back wall of Poke Bowl and point to however much or however little proteins (diced fresh albacore, tuna, salmon, crab, shrimp, octopus), salad mix (always do the kale), sea veggies and additional fish roe and various seeds — all swirled ’round in a bowl with various marinades and served fresh. “It’s just the best thing for your body,” says Chaabane.