Photos by Megan Leigh Barnard

Poké Men

Imagine walking into the local gas station and instead of finding rolling hot dogs sweating pig juice and cardboard pizza with questionable cheese, you see bowls of super fresh cubed ahi tuna marinated in soy and sesame piled high atop ice cream scoops of white rice as the go-to snack? That’s island life, my landlocked friends.

And Mico Cordero and Nile Woodson have arrived just in time to save us all from the winter blahs with a taste of sun and surf. Woodson’s passion for poké began during a vacation to Hawaii when he was a kid and he filed away

the delicious dish. After business school, that youthful tuna encounter sprung from memory and Hai Poké was born. And that passion won over Cordero.

The pair are the kind of friends who finish each others’ sentences. The kind of friends who share everything—an apartment, friends, dreams, and now a business—and who have known each other for… six months.

“We met in a leadership program, and it was, ‘Hey, what are you up to? Opening up a restaurant? Serving powhat?” recalled Cordero. “It sounded awesome.”

“Poké is true Hawaiian street

food, it’s a staple dish for surfers, and you can get it anywhere,” explained Woodson. As for Hai’s recipe for the dish, it was a collaborative creation between Woodson’s take and patrons’ comments. “We are open to feedback and that’s how we create community everyday,” added Cordero. “We presented our dish and listened to the people … a tweak here, a tweak there … and then we found it.”

While the food is the centerpiece, the community is what really energizes Hai Poké. Woodson and Cordero treat all customers like long-lost friends, often joining them for a minute to get their take on the sushi-rice based bowl. “Our original vision is to bring people in and create an experience, greet everyone, give ‘em a hug,” said Woodson. “The food is good but meeting people, that’s when we are in our element.”

The key to poké is the yellowfin tuna. But where to find the highest grade slab when surrounded by the rolling flatness of Ohio? “In the process of finding a vendor, we finally called Tensuke Market, who couldn’t provide us with the amount we needed,” explained Woodson. “But soon he was on the phone with a guy, and then we were on the phone with a guy named Yoshi, and now we are sourcing from True World Foods, the same company that works with Tensuke.”

That kind of cooperation is one of the reasons Woodson, a Manhattanite by birth, loves Columbus and decided to plant his poké flag in Central Ohio after graduating from OSU. In New York, it would be unheard of to share your freshest of fresh tuna hookup with someone else. “Like, remember when those ninjas were hanging up in the Short North,” asked Woodson. “I found out the artist— Adam Brouilette—and called him up and asked him to make me one and he did. That would never happen in New York.”

In the “little kitchen that could” that occupies an out-of- sight slice of Oddfellows, both men put together poké bowls. “Don’t forget the power sauce,” reminded Cordero, whose Filipino heritage shows up in the spice blend used in the dish. Currently, the menu consists only of the poké bowls, but the two will expand to Filipino street food as well as other island goodies in the future. Recently, a crowdfunding effort to aid the pop-up in going brick-and-mortar

was successful and the creative wheels are turning.

“Island food is so open—the UK is an island, Jamaica, the Philippines, Japan,” said Woodson. “But we’re staying away from pineapple,” added Cordero, laughing.

Pairing with another local startup, Karate Cowboy, a wasabi and honey-infused sake, for accompanying cocktails, the Hai Poké guys are all about the energy of Columbus and its openness to new flavors and fun. The honey flavor hits first, and the wasabi starts warming up the throat. It is a perfect match for the slightly sweet rice and slow-burn sauce on the tuna.

“Our moms came in to support us,” said Woodson. “But now they are like, ‘Son, I love you but we’re here for the poké.’”

As the two take a moment to shake hands and hug new poké adventurers, their smiles warm like the island sun.

HAI POKÉ pops at Oddfellows Thursday and Friday, as well as Tuesdays at Denmark on High from 4-9 both locations. Follow them on Facebook for all the latest news.