Alvin Cheah has always experimented with his food.
In his native Malaysia, he would modify the country’s traditional chicken curry dish with a Hawaiian pineapple twist. But beyond a stint as a teenager cooking at a Holiday Inn, Cheah, now 50, never applied this interest professionally, until he opened Aku Poke last year and debuted the restaurant’s signature item, the poke taco.
Poke is a Hawaiian dish that commonly features some kind of raw tuna or other fish that’s chopped into pieces and is mixed with rice, seaweed, greens and other foods. It’s become a staple of Los Angeles’ food scene in the past few years and is commonly served as a rice or noodle bowl.
Cheah discovered poke bowls three years ago and loved them for their freshness and nutritional value. He wanted to serve poke differently with his restaurant. “So we came up with the burritos and the tacos, so it’s more like the local flavor,” he said. “We came up with frying the seaweed.”
Aku Poke’s “PoCos” are served in a blue nori seaweed shell, fried in a batter that’s Cheah’s secret in order to maintain that crispy texture. Tropical shrimp and ponzu albacore are among the seven varieties that customers can enjoy, along with the typical tuna option and a sesame chicken choice. The restaurant’s fish is delivered fresh every morning.
Back in Malaysia, Cheah studied design and architecture before moving to New York and then settling in California. “When I visited Los Angeles, I saw a lot of land here, so that’s what kept me here for 30 years,” he said. He’s since been the architect for many restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, like the New Capital Seafood Restaurant in San Gabriel and OK Cafe in Monterey Park.
For Aku Poke’s design, Cheah decided to do something simple, favoring industrial colors and accents, “so you can focus on the food,” he said with a laugh.
Watch a video of the PoCo in action!