The story of Seattle’s newest poke shop begins with a boat.
Not the boat that procures the ahi tuna that GoPoke will use to make Hawaii’s signature salad of raw fish. The vessel that started it all was basically a glorified canoe, made of indigenous bark, that Dinh Le and Vang Le Phan used to flee Vietnam in the middle of the night in 1981, escaping the communist invasion. The couple wasn't yet 20 years old, part of an outpouring of refugees that later became known as the boat people.
“They were just following hope and the north star, basically,” says Bayley Le of his parents’ harrowing flight, one that, 35 years later, resulted in Bayley and two of his brothers sitting here, in a corner space in Chinatown-International District, where they're about to open their own restaurant. Trinh, 35, is the eldest of the seven siblings, 34-year-old Bayley the de facto spokesman. Michael, just now 30, is the funny one.
Trinh was born the year after the British coast guard rescued his parents off the coast of Hong Kong and sent them to a refugee camp. Eventually their family, with some others, was sponsored into a community in Wichita; they arrived without money, a grasp of English, or appreciable job skills. Eventually, says Bayley, this tight-knit group of families caught wind of the seafood industry down on the Gulf Coast—“fishing was something that the Vietnamese knew very well how to do.”
Today the Vietnamese community in Louisiana is so significant it’s bred its own Cajun variation of pho, and had its own plotline on HBO’s Treme. In the early ‘80s, the brothers were an oddity surrounded by white kids. The Viet fishermen did well, Bayley recalls, so well that the locals got upset that these immigrants who couldn’t even speak English were horning in on their shrimp and therefore their profits.
Which brings us to another boat. Dozens of them, actually, that slipped out into the Gulf of Mexico one night in 1988.
“I remember standing on the docks, waving goodbye to our dads,” says Trinh Le. His voice still catches a little bit. Pretty much every other able-bodied man in that tight-knit community that moved together from Wichita was sailing away. The families waving goodbye had no idea when they might see one another again.
The group had put in money to buy some shrimping vessels. But faced with hostility from locals, the families devised what today seems like a fantastical plan.
After hearing of opportunities in Hawaii, they stripped away the big nets on their shrimping boats and converted them into long-line tuna trawlers. Relocating entailed a long, uncertain journey through the Panama Canal. The Le family waited for more than a year until their dad could send for them. Bayley Le still remembers the aloha shirts the crew wore on their Hawaiian Airlines flight to Honolulu—and how it felt to finally see other Asians.
That's how Hawaii came to be home. Eventually health concerns changed his dad's course from fishing tuna to selling it.
Most mornings, the elder Les would wake up at 2am to go to the fish auction and buy as many tuna as they could fit in their car. Dinh would fillet them in the backyard. Once everything was butchered, trimmed, and loaded into a cooler in the trunk of car, the kids would fan through the neighborhood to knock on doors in hopes of a sale. “We knew what rejection was,” says Trinh. “It means nothing to us.”
They saw other children playing outside, or lounging and watching cartoons while the Les worked. Once Bayley knocked on a door and was mortified when his crush from school answered.
The poke was their mother's idea. Vang Le taught herself the basics of Hawaii’s staple salad—cubes of raw tuna dressed with sesame seeds, sea salt, seaweed, green onion, and a bit of sesame oil. She tinkered and perfected her recipe and sold it at flea markets and mom and pop shops. Her poke was good enough to build a fan base among native Hawaiians.
Years later, on the eve of opening a poke restaurant, three of her sons remember sitting on the kitchen floor and portioning ingredients from big tubs, vowing to leave home, go to school—do whatever it takes to escape a life spent making all that poke.
By Thanksgiving 2009, the family had dispersed again, though this time no boats were involved. As the seven brothers and sisters grew up, school and work scattered them around the mainland; Hawaii’s cost of living sent their parents to Florida. Trinh, Bayley, and Michael ended up in Seattle, pursuing careers in IT consulting, real estate management, and retail respectively. Their youngest brother, Jason, is here too.
The brothers organized a potluck Thanksgiving dinner with their spouses, some extended family, a few close friends. They didn't know how to make turkey, so the Les turned to their own family tradition. They made poke. Hardly else at the table was familiar with this dish, but “it was the first thing that got demolished,” Bayley remembers. Poke became a de facto request for any birthday or holiday gatherings. It turned out that humble salad prepared under duress from their mother was a source of pride; it made people happy.
The brothers had talked for years about what kind of business they might open together. Meanwhile they always told each other, “if someone opens a real poke restaurant, we’ll be camping in line.”
Eventually it dawned on them, says Michael. “Why not us? Why would we camp in someone else’s line?”
It took some doing, but GoPoke will soon open in a former mini mart that sat empty for two years at Sixth and Maynard. The brothers considered locations all over town, but wanted to be here, in the neighborhood that feels like an approximation of the Vietnamese community that sustained their parents (not to mention where the guys would park and eat before going to a Seahawks or Sounders game). Michael will run the day-to-day operations in this white-tiled space the brothers built out themselves, filled with planter boxes of succulents and burled wood tables. GoPoke will serve variations made with tofu, tuna, octopus, and salmon, enlivened with garnishes like spicy aioli.
The brothers began this new chapter in the Le story because they couldn't find poke in Seattle the way they had it growing up. But as they wrote a business plan and sought a space, this particular dish boomed here. Now we have a poke food truck, multiple dedicated poke shops, even combination poke and coffee shop—fitting for Seattle. On the mainland, says Trinh Le, poke shops usually take your order, then assemble the cubes of raw fish, garnish, and drizzles of spicy mayo or soy sauce on the spot. The poke the brothers crave from their youth is assembled in advance. Not too far in advance, this is raw fish after all. Just an hour or two, so the tuna is ever so lightly marinated.
GoPoke will also serve a few other sweets that they miss from home, like shave ice, Bubbie’s mochi ice cream, and the Dole whip soft serve that may be a Hawaiian staple, but is known among mainlanders because it’s sold at Disneyland. Sprinkled on top: something island locals call Hawaiian crack, an extract of salty-sweet dried plumb seed.
Nobody was throwing around the term "entrepreneurs" when the Le parents started their own business. They did it out of sheer economic survival. But these are the values they passed down to their sons; the American experience has a way of doing that. Similarly, the humble raw fish salad Vang Le made to utilize every last bit of the tuna purchased at auction is now the trendiest of foods on the mainland. No surprise, guys who grew up in a community of fishermen eschew frozen tuna, which you can usually distinguish by its texture and carbon-enhanced bright watermelon color.
On December 4, these Vietnamese brothers will start serving Hawaii’s native dish in their adopted city here in the Pacific Northwest. Before that, though, Bayley, Michael, and Trinh Le will take a break from furiously prepping GoPoke. They'll sit down for another Thanksgiving dinner with their extended families, mounded bowls of deep red poke firmly part of the meal.