In small cities around North America, poké is on the rise. It has already taken its star turn in larger metropolises like New York and Los Angeles, but everywhere else, Hawaiian-style cubed fish and rice remains in full ascent. For the moment.

Portland is no exception. At the start of 2017, we got our first poké restaurant. Today, we have four, including one that resides in the same space where cupcakes, last decade’s hot new thing, were once sold.

Not even two years into the lifespan of the current poké trend, Congress Street’s Poké Pop is already attempting to shake things up with a $10,000 shaved ice machine, an animé-inspired graphic sensibility, and a schizophrenically eclectic menu. In almost any other industry, Poké Pop would be called a “disruptor.”

It may not be the poké restaurant we need, but it is the poké restaurant we deserve.

Anusat “Pop” Limsitong got the inspiration for his eponymous new restaurant while looking to expand his other business, Thai 9, in Scarborough. Pop’s experience as a sushi chef at Zuma in Miami gave him a passion for raw fish, and he saw poké as an ideal way to get back to serving it-with a few twists. “I always loved sushi. I started doing it from a cookbook when I was growing up in Bangkok, then for years in the kitchen (at Zuma),” he said. “Poké Pop has a very unique style of poké. It lets me combine my knowledge of Japanese cuisine with Thai cuisine together.”

Nowhere is the Thai influence more apparent than in the tom yum soup ($3.95), a new, off-the-official-menu side dish that Limsitong prepares from a traditional hot-and-sour paste of lemongrass, galangal, hot chili and lime juice. To make each portion, he adds the aromatic paste to a steaming cup of vegetable broth, along with soft tofu and a sprinkle of green onion and cilantro. It’s a lovely, refreshing bowl of soup. But wait, you might protest: It’s not Hawaiian; it’s not Japanese, and it’s certainly not poké.

Hang on. Hold my beer.

Try the tom yum poké bowl ($10.95), served over rice, salad greens or angel-hair-thin zucchini noodles. Here, Limsitong blends the same paste used for the soup with sweet chili sauce and tosses it with scallops, shrimp and romaine lettuce. Mixing cloyingly sweet sauce with cherry tomatoes and slivers of onion catalyzes a bizarre flavor alchemy that conjures something eerily similar to a spicy, store-bought marinara. Exactly nobody wants that coating their raw seafood, rice and salad greens.

The neon sign is reflected in a window at Poke Pop on Congress Street in Portland on Wednesday. The restaurant has been open since the beginning of July.

Sugary sauces appear again and again across Poké Pop’s menu. In the spicy tuna oishi bowl ($9.95), a citrusy blend of yuzu juice, premade kimchi seasoning and (yet again) sweet chili sauce soaks into an expertly chopped fine dice of ahi tuna. The fiery kick of chili is calibrated well here – not overwhelming, but vividly present. But that bite is offset by too much sticky-sweet flavor, especially if you choose to have your poké over the short-grain white rice or a nuttier, sweeter (and gloppier) mixture of jasmine brown rice and purple Thai “riceberry.”

There’s even more sweet chili in the Thai-sriracha sauce on the tofu super salad bowl ($9.95), which I tried on my second visit to Poké Pop. Strewn with slippery edamame, thin slices of radish and cubes of fried tofu, my vegetarian bowl came on a base of matcha soba noodles. If there is any place where a syrupy sauce works best, it is here, where the herbaceous green tea in the noodles and oil from the tofu offer at least token resistance to sweetness. But it’s not enough.

You can wash everything down with mysteriously flavor-free miso soup ($2.95), or opt for a beverage, like fresh kombucha, available on tap, or milk teas prepared with and without boba, like Thai iced tea ($4.25), which is a little chalky, or Taro milk tea ($4.25), weirdly brewed with floral jasmine tea. Imagine sipping a bubble tea where bits of potpourri at the bottom have replaced tapioca balls.

After tasting a few menu items with inexplicably peculiar tweaks, it starts to feel as if Poké Pop’s enthusiasm is about disruption and innovation for their own sake, rather than positive results.

Take the sushi burrito as an example. Any of the restaurant’s bowls can be converted to this format, where rice and toppings are rolled into a nori-wrapped log and cut once down the center. Poké Pop is certainly not the first to sell what is essentially extra-large, unsliced maki sushi as a “burrito,” but they may be the first to package it in a bullet-like, bespoke cardboard container. Sure, the chirashi burrito I tasted ($11.50) contained way too much lettuce and a miserly portion of tuna, salmon and hamachi, but the graphical, orange-white-and-red hexagonal box it comes in certainly is cool, right?

Well, yes. But stop to read the misspelled Japanese label on the box. It does not actually say “poké” in katakana lettering. It says “pork.”

The chirashi poke bowl at Poke Pop on Congress Street in Portland.

There is no pork on the menu at Poké Pop.

There is dessert though, in the form of Limsitong’s reimagined Korean fruit bing soo – shaved ice bowls that are usually served with compotes, whipped cream and a few other toppings. For his amped-up version, Pop creates a milk-based ice that he shaves into a plastic cup, then layers with ingredient after ingredient. Why use three when eight will do?

My mango bing soo ($7.95) began with a base of fruit-cocktail-flavored nata jellies, then moved sequentially up to: grainy shaved milk ice, a chocolate cookie, chewy mini-mochi, whipped cream, mango ice cream, Frosted Flakes cereal, toasted almond slices, and surprisingly, no actual mango.

Anusat “Pop” Limsitong puts the finishing touch on a shaved-ice dessert.

Bing soo are not normally built on such stratifications of sweet excess. For that, you have to turn to their over-the-top Filipino cousin, halo halo. It is hard not to love a good halo halo: a parfait where every spoonful excavates something new from the glass. In their frenzy to add as many flourishes and embellishments as possible to their bing soo, Poké Pop took an unintended (according to Pop) southerly detour and created the area’s first halo halo. It’s wacky and totally indulgent, and each one takes 15 minutes to prepare, but I could happily eat three.

What must not be an accident is that this fever-dream of a dessert echoes note-for-note the animé-inspired graphical wall mural that greets visitors the instant they walk through the glass doors. You can’t help but take it in before you see the stylish, vertical bamboo tabletops and LED strip lighting that illuminates the 25-seater. In a flash, you are shown a fantastical perspective on Portland and its poké, represented in a propulsion of color, with a Voltron-like robot towering behind. The statement is clear: If you think you understand poké, you are about to learn something new. Message received.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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