Pokeworks brings high Hawaiian style to Wilton

Photo of Jane Stern

In my favorite little strip mall on Route 7 (nothing fancy, just good ol’ TJ Maxx and Michaels) is a new tenant: Pokeworks. It is the corner store where the dearly departed Radio Shack once proudly stood.

What, you may ask is a Pokeworks? If I hadn’t spent a considerable amount of time in Seattle over the last few years I would have thought that perhaps Pokeworks, like Radio Shack, is the au courant place to buy batteries and antenna wire. It isn’t.

If you visit Seattle you will be overwhelmed by the amount of Asian eateries there are. I mean neighborhoods, blocks and sprawling out-of-the-way vicinities with competing Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese places shoulder to shoulder. This wealth of pan-Asian cuisine in Seattle makes sense if you choose to ignore that oversized pesky Pacific Ocean. Without it, Seattle and Japan are practically neighbors.

But there is an important land mass between the West Coast and Asia that we can’t forget: Hawaii. I have eaten Hawaiian cuisine and always thought it was extremely bizarre, some of it delicious and some almost surreal in its weird combinations and lack of finesse. Pokeworks is one of the first Hawaiian places to open in New England. It will be interesting to see if it pleases the Yankee palate.

Just the words “Hawaii Food” stir up a cloud of confusion. To some, Hawaiian food means the flaming puu-puu platters and rum-laden drinks served in an interior festooned with Tiki Gods. To others, Hawaiian food is the indigenous cuisine of Poi (mashed taro root that taste like library paste) and roast pig. These days, many native islanders dine each day on what is referred to as “plate lunch.” Workingman-sized portions of the oddest marriages of many foods from different nationalities. There is Spam sushi, Fried Spam with Seaweed, Loco Moco (white rice with a fried egg, an American-style hamburger smothered in brown gravy, sweet yeasty Philippine breads with exotic marmalades, and to finish the meal, a paper cone of bright red or blue syrup-soaked shave ice. And then there are poke bowls.

Poke means “to slice or cut” in Hawaiian and refers to chunks of raw, marinated fish — usually tuna — served over rice and topped with vegetables and umami-packed sauces. It is a kind of sushi for beginners. It is not as artfully presented as sushi but it tastes and looks fresh and clean.

Pokeworks in Wilton is cafeteria-style dining. You can get your meal four ways: In a rice bowl, wrapped like a burrito, on a leafy salad or on a bed of kale noodles. After the configuration you choose, your protein which consists mostly of seafood: Ahi tuna, salmon, shrimp, scallops. There is also tofu and chicken.

No, you’re not finished yet. You must now decide on “mix-ins,” a long list of everything from fresh orange slices to edamame beans. Now turn your attention to your choice of “flavor” (another rather confusing pile up of options from Srirachi aioli, to fresh ponzu.) Sorry, but there is still more to do. For your toppings you must decide between ten offerings from Spicy Furikake to sesame seeds, and finally “your crunch,” roasted macadamia nuts, shredded nori or lotus chips. Phew.

Pokeworks is clearly not a place for people who balk at making quick decisions. I choose the easy route and ordered from a selection of their “Signature Works,” time-tested combos that poke lovers have decided makes the best combo.


14 Danbury Road, Wilton; pokeworks.com

Amazingly, once ordered the food is produced at lightning speed by the servers behind the counter. No one in line looked like they were having performance anxiety when they were called upon to order. To the American sensibility that is comfortable ordering from limited menus, like either a burger or chicken nuggets, the menu at Pokeworks seems like a cagey puzzle to be deciphered.

The good news is that there is really no way to screw it up. Everything goes with everything and it is all healthy and attractive and given the high cost of tuna and salmon, quite affordable.

If you freeze and go mute when you join the order line I recommend you simply blurt out “Hawaiian Classic, please,” as I did.

My only decision was to ask for rice; after that everything was on was automatic pilot. At the end of the order line, I was presented with a lovely combination of ahi tuna, green onions, ogo seaweed, cucumber, chili flakes, sesame seeds, roasted sesame oil, Hawaiian sea salt and a sweet-and-savory Pokeworks “special” sauce.

To come up with this classic combination would probably have taken me an hour of decision making. I would have been the Hawaiian cafeteria version of the annoying old lady who drives 30 miles an hour in the passing lane.

Because there is such a wealth of culinary combinations available here, I noticed when people took their seats at the tables there was lots of rubber-necking. We all wanted to see if we had stumbled upon the winning combo. I heard a few sighs of “I should have ordered that,” and “next time I’m going for the spicy ponzu albacore,” but the grumbles were outweighed by the sound of happy eaters.

It was sad to see Radio Shack disappear from the strip mall, but honestly, you can buy batteries and electronics everywhere. Poke bowls not so much. Pokeworks really is a trip into the exotic for a fair price, and if it all seems overwhelmingly foreign you can run into TJ Maxx next door and try on sweaters.

Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern.