Madison is about to be bowled over by a new poke place.
Local entrepreneur Judy Zhu hopes to open Poke Poke, an independent, casual restaurant, in the Gateway Mall in the 600 block of Williamson Street by March.
Following a trend that has been growing on the U.S. coasts in recent years, Poke Poke will specialize in simple, customizable bowls of fresh, raw tuna, salmon or shrimp (marinated or "naked") with tofu for vegetarians. White rice, brown rice or quinoa make the base of each poke (poh-KAY) bowl, with sauces and toppings like spicy aioli, wasabi, cucumber, edamame and jalapeños.
Zhu plans to combine the fresh fish Japanese poke is known for with vegetable toppings often added to Hawaiian poke.
"For Japanese style they do not have any vegetables," Zhu said. "But in Hawaii they provide things like local onion, pineapple. We'll combine them."
The menu is still being set at Poke Poke, but a first draft included bowls in three sizes ranging from $7.50 for a "little" to $14.50 for a "kahuna." Diners can choose their own combination or pick from one of Poke Poke's "creations," like an Aloha bowl with pineapple, cucumber, sweet onion and sesame vinaigrette.
There may be sides of crab salad and seaweed salad ($2.50-$3.50). For beverages, green tea and a Japanese soft drink called Ramune may be offered. For dessert, Poke Poke has plans for shaved ice and mochi ($2-$3.50).
Poke Poke will be Zhu's first restaurant. She has a master's degree in business and work experience with Amazon, and she got excited by poke during her travels.
Poke Poke will be the second poke-focused restaurant in Madison, following Food Fight's Miko Poke that opened in 2016. Zhu's desire to bring more poke to Madison is for its health benefits, with an eye toward patrons of CrossFit Recursive next door and The Studio, a yoga studio across the street.
Poke Poke's future space used to be Mad City Music Exchange, and transforming it into a restaurant has been a challenge in the older building. Her section of the mall was built in 1952 and remodeled in 1986.
"In the Gateway, they have Wah Kee and Bandung (Indonesian Restaurant). They’re successful for years," Zhu said. "It’s definitely a good point, a positive sign for a restaurant location."
Poke Poke plans to serve lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Zhu said she'll have 35 seats inside and a few outside, and she'll serve poke in recyclable, BPA-free plastic bowls. Poke Poke is on the agenda for the city's alcohol licensing committee on Tuesday, which would allow Zhu to sell craft beer with her poke.
"Our aim with the customer would be the tourists and students as well as people from work," Zhu said, "because it’s near the Capitol area and there’s a lot of offices.
"I'm a foodie person," she said. "Seafood is good for you, especially people who love to exercise. Madison people love healthy food. We have a good food culture."