When Johnny Nguyen and his uncles opened their flagship Poki Bowl off of Almaden Expressway last summer, the Hawaiian staple of deconstructed sushi in a bowl was still a bit hard to find in the mainland. But poke—pronounced PO-kay and translated to ‘chunks’ —has since surged in popularity as dozens of restaurants across the South Bay began offering their spin on the dish.
Meanwhile, customer expectations to wield more control over their food have dramatically shifted the culinary landscape. Call it transparent food prep, the Chipotle effect or the watch-it-made movement.
Thanks to the popularity of the pseudo-Mexican chain’s assembly line ordering—and the subsequent realization that there are more places to eat than Chipotle—customers of virtually any cuisine can now customize orders in real time by picking from a display case of ingredients. As a movement, transparent food prep plays into modern tastes for all things on-demand and made-to-order.
Poki Bowl’s inaugural storefront, which occupies the corner of a south San Jose strip mall by a donut shop and nail salon, is a no-frills takeaway joint. But the fixings—oh, the fixings. Seasoned raw fish, veggies, pickled ginger and spiced-up soy sauce all combine to make for a healthier meal than the grease-bathed sodium bombs that dominate so much of the fast-casual food industry. (Ironically, Chipotle falls into this category.)
The line forms at the back, where customers pick a bowl size, regular ($9.50) or large ($10.95), and a base of sushi rice, brown rice, chips—sushi nachos, anyone?—mixed greens or a blend of any two. A server fills our order with half brown rice, half greens. We ask for the smallest, a regular here, which comes with three scoops of raw fish. From a spread of yellowtail, mashed-up spicy tuna, shrimp, Ahi tuna octopus and salmon, we pick the latter three.
Next come the trimmings: mild-to-hot soy-based sauce, sriracha, spicy mayo, imitation crab, vivid orange Masago eggs, avocado, seaweed salad ($1.50 extra), wasabi, dried seaweed, sesame seeds and pickled ginger. Everything, please.
‘However you want to mix it up,’ Nguyen says, motioning toward the spread of fresh seafood. ‘Pick a base, pick a seafood, and pick the toppings. You watch them make it.’
While some poke places marinate their seafood overnight, Nguyen says the Poki Bowl way means fresh fish each morning. He also favors thicker cubes than some of his counterparts.
Point-and-eat ordering has several advantages. The food’s ready right away, so customers only wait in one line and skip the tip-related anxieties that come with waitstaff. Picky eaters can tailor meals precisely to their liking, so they won’t be disappointed by accidental additions or omissions. Adventurous diners gain a quick way to sample. While blind-ordering an unfamiliar dish can be daunting (and expensive), front-of-house meal prep encourages people to get exactly what they want and get it right.
‘A lot of our customers wouldn’t touch our Greek-style eggplant,’ says Yaniv Benaroya, owner of GottaEattaPita. ‘So we just quickly slice a sliver of pita, throw some eggplant in there and hand it over. Before they even make their decision, they get to put it in their mouth and go, ‘Oh that is awesome, I want that.’ You’re able to instantly give them a taste, and that speaks for everything.’
Chipotle and others trained customers, he adds, ‘so there’s nothing foreign when they walk in. They know exactly what to do.’
Bringing the kitchen from the back of the house to the front is a relatively new concept in the States, but the diversity of Silicon Valley and its cuisine has flipped tradition of all forms. Benaroya, for example, grew up in Israel and watched vendors load their carts with hummus, babaganouj, couscous, roasted vegetables, olives, tabouli and other ready-to-go favorites that diners would custom-combine into a meal that was hot, healthy and tasty. When he saw the Chipotle model take off, he mimicked what he’d learned in his childhood.
‘[We’re] kind of like the street food in Israel,’ he says. ‘You walk right up and they throw whatever you want inside that pita and off you go. That’s the way it’s been done since the beginning of time.’
On Meridian Avenue just south of 280, the Flying Falafel recently painted its A-frame blue, in part because the red and yellow legacy architecture continued to attract requests for cheese dogs and soft drinks, neither of which the vegan establishment serves. Even the banana shakes are made with rice milk.
A gloved culinary technician makes precise movements with small tongs, dropping diced cucumbers and root vegetables into a pita pocket. He then squeezes tahini artfully in a zigzag motion and dusts the hummus cup with cumin and paprika, drizzles some olive oil on top and places a small clump of shredded carrots in the center. The kind of complex preparation once found in the back kitchens of Napa’s Michelin star restaurants can be viewed from the counter of a converted Wienerschnitzel just off a freeway ramp, next to a Subway with a battery-operated parking lot mannequin rocking a sign.
This style not only values freshness, but also combats the most rampant problems in the American food industry. The National Resources Defense Council estimates that we throw out roughly 40 percent of our total food—$165 billion worth of alimentation that could feed the hungry, but which instead sits in landfills belching methane. The NRDC also estimates that California’s produce-importing habits cost the planet 250,000 tons of global warming gases per year—equivalent to 40,000 additional vehicles on the road.
Beyond the flavor and ecological benefits, fresh, locally-sourced restaurants help the area’s small businesses create a self-sustaining economic ecosystem. The growing number of ‘Mediterranean Chipotles’ may number the days of restaurants where food is slid through a tiny window or over an opaque counter to a person whose principal job is to take orders, make change and hand customers a bag of packaged food. Millennials seem content to order and manage the business transaction on a touchscreen tablet, which makes room for a preparer at the counter who could even be a culinary school graduate, able to answer questions about sourcing and ingredients.
If the popularity of production-forward establishments is indicative of a movement, the feared robotization of the food industry may instead just relate to payment, while on-view human artistry becomes the signature of a new fast food revolution.