RocKa Poké Noodle Bar has brought the latest Hawaiian food trend to Morgantown.
“I wanted to be the first person to have a poke shop in the state of West Virginia.” Ton Sittichaimanee sits at a table in his Morgantown restaurant, RocKa Poké Noodle Bar, a handwritten family recipe in front of him. All around him is evidence that he has succeeded at his goal and, at the same time, introduced Morgantown to a food trend that is sweeping the nation.
In 2017, Business Insider called poke “the next phenomenon in fast-casual food.” Poke (“po-kay”) is a traditional Hawaiian dish that combines raw seafood—think sashimi—with a wide array of fresh vegetables, spices, and delicious sauces. Hundreds of poke restaurants have opened in the continental U.S. over the past several years as more and more mainlanders come to appreciate the dish.
“There are poke shops all over big cities like New York and D.C.,” Sittichaimanee says. “Even Pittsburgh has three or four of them right now.” His brother owns a restaurant in D.C. with a poke shop right next door. “I saw it and liked it,” he says.
In many of these places, poke is becoming popular as a healthy and tasty takeout meal. It’s also less expensive for business owners, who don’t need industrial cooking equipment or major ventilation. “The concept itself is very easy,” Sittichaimanee says. But despite the fact that he refers to his new place as a “shop,” he has definitely aimed for something grander.
RocKa Poké is large and totally renovated with modern decor that emphasizes dark surfaces and moody lighting. Its two dining rooms offer a variety of seating options with more than a dozen seats at the bars alone. And while poke itself requires little equipment, the restaurant is operating with a full kitchen. Sittichaimanee invested personal sweat in the space. He constructed an enormous bench that spans one wall of the restaurant himself. The renovations took longer than he’d hoped, but he finally opened the doors in October of 2017.
While Sittichaimanee originally started RocKa Poké with the intention of serving poke exclusively, he’s already taking advantage of that full kitchen by filling out the menu with a considerable range of Asian fusion options. When Sittichaimanee was a child, his father often cooked Asian fusion in their D.C.- area home, and RocKa’s menu allows him to expand into those culinary roots. This positions him well for trends within the poke scene. “A lot of poke shops now are more fusion,” he says. “We do shrimp, salmon, scallops, tofu, even chicken.”
Sittichaimanee arrived in Morgantown almost two decades ago. He came for an undergraduate degree at WVU and never left. He’s spent much of this time in the food and service industries. He’s served as a manager at establishments as varied as college nightspot Bent Willey’s and the classier Vintage Room, which was located where RocKa Poké sits now. He developed everything on RocKa Poké’s menu himself, but the sous chef he worked with at Vintage, Rob Guillermo, now heads up the kitchen.
It’s taken a little time for poke to catch on in Morgantown, but Sittichaimanee says business is picking up as people unfamiliar with the dish learn what RocKa is all about. Weekends are pretty busy, and even he is surprised at how popular his Sunday brunch has quickly become. The drink specials don’t hurt: $3 bloody marys and a variety of $10 bottomless mimosas are easy on the wallet.
Sittichaimanee shared with Morgantown a family Thai dish traditionally called “krapow” but labeled Holy Basil Chicken on RocKa’s menu. As with a lot of Asian fusion dishes, much of the flavor is dependent on a good sauce or curry. In Thailand, krapow is often made with jalapenos to give it more spice. “That makes even me sweat,” he says. He prepares this milder version of the dish without jalapenos, which should work for most palates. The egg should be done with a quick, hot fry to give it the proper texture. “Sunnyside up, but it has to be crispy on the outside.” 467 Chestnut Street, 304.225.9595, rockawv.com
written by J. KENDALL PERKINSON