Starting with a raucous concert in 1954, the idiom “Elvis has left the building” was uttered at the conclusion of many of Elvis Presley’s concerts to encourage rabid fans to accept that no further encores were forthcoming and that they should go home. Today, those five simple words are an oft used catchphrase and punchline used in a humorous or sarcastic vein to refer to virtually anyone who has made an exit or vacated a premises, especially in dramatic fashion. The phrase was later co-opted in the Kelsey Grammar sitcom “Frasier” which ended with a play on the line—“Frasier has left the building.”
For many Duke City diners, the term “Elvis has left the building” recalls June 1, 2017, the sad day when wunderkind Chef Elvis Boncomo shuttered the doors at Pasion Latin Fusion one final time. Pasion was unlike any restaurant in Albuquerque, showcasing a menu demonstrating uncommon creativity, imagination and willingness to experiment with ingredient and flavor combinations. It was quite simply one of the very best restaurants in Albuquerque with Elvis widely acknowledged as one of the city’s most innovative and talented chefs. The menu was an eye-opening melange of Latin fusion with elements of Cuban, Haitian, Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Spanish, Mariscos, Argentinian and even New Mexican ingredients used in sundry and creative ways.
For the many ardent fans of Pasion, the restaurant’s closure was an event warranting an apron flying at half mast. No one doubted that Elvis would rebound to delight his legions of admirers once again. The question was when. After Pasion’s untimely closure, Elvis kept busy albeit while maintaining a relatively low profile. One of his ventures was collaborating on the restaurant concept for Poki Poki Cevicheria’s and developing its fantastic sauces and chips. That first of its kind in New Mexico restaurant became the catalyst behind a Poke craze that shows no surcease. At present Poki Poki has two locations with another soon to launch on Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side.
On the last week of June, 2018, the Poki Poki family launched its most ambitious and innovative fusion concept with the opening of Poki Poblano Fusion Lounge which takes Asian-Latin fusion to bolder, more ambitious and even more delicious (if that’s possible) heights. Moreover, Poki Poblano has brought Elvis back to the kitchen where he once again plies his incomparable skills. Poki Poblano’s Northeast Heights location is both familiar (at least in terms of address) and brand new. Poki Poblano is located at the former home of several short-lived eateries (South Bourbon Kitchen, Heimat House and Beer Garden, Independence Grill, Los Compadres) and the legendary Liquid Assets.
The once tired and aged space has undergone a complete make-over. The transformation is stunning inside and out, flowing flawlessly in complementary fashion to its neighbors in a retail center which itself has metamorphosed like the proverbial butterfly. It’s now comprised exclusively of restaurants (such as the Curry Leaf and Tap That) with inviting patios where once there was only dull views of the rear parking lot. Alas, an otherwise dog-friendly patio lacks shade and on hot, summer days you risk overheating your furry family members. The interior is very colorful and more than vaguely reminiscent of China Poblano, the Las Vegas, Nevada concept developed by famed Spanish chef Jose Andres.
Jose Andres, the 2018 recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian Award, could not have fashioned a better concept or more exciting menu than Poki Poblano. It’s a menu replete with so many enticing options that multiple visits are a certainty. The menu is segmented into six sections: Shareables, Tiraditos, Ceviches, Tacos, Poke Bowls and Sides. As the name implies, Shareables are dishes intended to be shared, much like tapas. Unlike some tapas which aren’t big enough to feed a starving guppy, portion sizes are generous. Four or five Shareables could easily feed many couples.
The Tiraditos section of the menu pays tribute to Lima, Peru, the gastro-tourism destination to which all gastronomes aspire. Peru is a veritable melting pot of culinary cultures, melding a 500-year tradition of Italian, Spanish, African, Japanese and Chinese immigrant populations with the native Quechua culture. Derived from the Spanish word tirar, which means “to throw,” tiradito is the Peruvian cousin to crudo, sashimi, and ceviche. Tiraditos showcase elegantly sliced and beautifully presented raw seafood dishes. Poki Pobano’s menu features four distinct tiraditos: salmon, hamachi, octopus and tuna. Fittingly, the menu also offers three different ceviches. Habitues of Pasion contend that only in Peru will you find ceviche as wondrous as the ceviche Elvis prepared.
The infinite diversity of tacos available across the Duke City has transcended (and at times blended) cultures and geographies. That diversity is in evidence on each of the eight tacos on the Poki Poblano menu. You’ll find Korean tacos, vegan tacos (jackfruit adovada, beer-battered avocado and roasted poblano), Baja fish tacos, Mexican tacos (carnitas, flank steak) and a Peruvian taco. Regular visitors to Poki Poki will recognize the four poke bowls on the menu. The six sides are as diverse as everything else on the menu and thankfully don’t include anything as pedestrian as French fries or onion rings.
While the term taquito may translate to “small taco,” taquitos have come to represent different things to different people. For some, taquitos are rolled tacos or flautas. For others (can you say Whataburger) taquitos are more akin to breakfast burritos. Elvis has his own ideas. At Poki Poblano, “taquitos” (note the quotation marks around the term) are an inventive fusion play on Mexican and Japanese traditions. Three taquitos per order are fashioned from crispy spring roll wraps enveloping spicy tuna served on a pool of spicy tamarind sauce. The crispy spring roll wraps are light and brittle which means instant sushi-quality spicy tuna gratification. Polish off these three and you might never again look at taquitos the same way.
Paramours of Chinese restaurants are undoubtedly well acquainted with scallion pancakes (my favorite are from China Luck). Fewer are familiar with kimchijeon (kimchi pancakes), a Korean staple. Poki Poblano’s rendition, a vegan offering showcasing housemade vegan kimchee and sweet potato fritters combined with scallions and diced jalapeños drizzled with a plum-pear sauce and vegan sour cream accompanied by a small bowl of Sambal soy sauce. By themselves, the kimchee pancakes are absolutely addictive. Dipped into the smoky Sambal soy sauce, they’re in rarefied air–not just as some of the best pancakes in town, but as one of the best starters (okay, “Shareables”) in Albuquerque. Three per order may not be enough.
Both Valentino, our very capable and affable server, and Elvis reserved their highest praise for one Shareable item, the roasted poblanos (roasted poblano peppers stuffed with quinoa pilaf, cranberries, pine nuts and avocado over mixed greens). Reading the description on the menu immediately brought to mind Chiles Rellenos en Nogada (the ones at Delicia’s Cafe are life-changing). While there are indeed some similarities, Poki Poblano’s roasted poblanos are–both from an experiential and flavor perspective–deliciously different. Who would have thought quinoa pilaf could be so good? Who would have thought a strictly vegan offering could be so enchanting?
It’s so refreshing to see sides that are actually interesting, to find ourselves actually challenged to decide which one (or six) to order. It’s refreshing not to see the “same old borefest” on the “sides” section of the menu. As daringly different as the rest of the menu is, it was the sides that challenged us most. How, after all, could you possibly pass up Korean BBQ quinoa pilaf, spicy Brussels sprouts or onigiri rice? Ultimately it was my Kim’s love of Peruvian corn which decided for us. Peruvian corn bears a textural and flavor semblance to both posole and chicos, two Northern New Mexican staples. Each supersized kernel is replete with the flavor of fresh corn, not as sweet as American corn, but more “corny” in every other aspect.
Though determined to try only heretofore new dishes, it’s impossible to resist a poke bowl. While Poki Poki allows you to build your own bowl, unless or until you understand the flavors resultant from combining ingredients and sauces, you’re probably better off ordering one of Poki Poki’s “Special Bowls.” At Poki Poblano, the build your own option isn’t available. For me, that’s a very good thing. Knowing my own gluttonous tendency to overstuff salads with favorite ingredients, often to the detriment of flavor optimization, a better option is to trust Elvis to build it for me.
The Spicy Bowl (“mixed” octopus, shrimp and scallops tossed in a Peruvian rocoto pepper and poki sauce with avocado, cucumber, roasted poblano, onion, lime onion crisps, cabbage slaw, pickled watermelon radish, furikake (a Japanese seasoning) as toppings with chipotle mayo and Sriracha for sauces over a bed of bamboo rice and tortilla chips) is arguably better than any sushi roll, an adventure in complementary flavors and textures. It’s an addictively delicious bowl of stuff you probably never thought would be so good together. The fresh, invigorating flavors will imprint themselves on your taste buds and for a while, all you’ll be able to think about is your next poke bowl.
For years my Kim has thought she didn’t like fish, particularly “raw” fish. A ridiculous indoctrination at sushi restaurants has largely changed her perception of fish. Still it surprised me when she ordered the tuna tiradito (tamarind sauce, shoestring sweet potatoes, avocado puree, red onion and micro greens). Characteristic of Elvis’s artistic bent, this is a beautiful plate, a syzygy of complementary flavors, colors and textures. The raw tuna is perfectly pink and sliced thin, but not so thin that it’s overpowered by other ingredients. The tuna is definitely the star here. It’s sashimi quality stuff, as good as any you’ll have in the Duke City. Those shoestring sweet potato chips are light, thin and crispy, a better version of a chip than you’ll find at many a burger joint.
There are only a limited number of desserts on the menu. Sadly, none of the transcendent postprandial delights once served at Pasion made it, but you can always trust Elvis to create decadent desserts worthy of the amazing entrees. Our choice was a no-brainer. Years ago we fell in love with mangoes and sticky rice (no one does it better than Thai Cuisine) so we jumped at the opportunity to enjoy the mangoes and sticky rice pudding. Pudding may be a bit of a misnomer. Texturally, it’s somewhere between a custard and a foam. That’s how light this beauteous amber-hued dessert is. Several thin slices of ripe mango and a circular lump of sticky rice along with two mint leaves top this unique dessert, one we’ll remember for quite a while. Elvis has done it again.
While Poki Poki revolutionized the Duke City’s culinary scene, Poki Poblano Fusion Lounge elevates it. This is an extraordinary restaurant helmed by a chef genius who will hopefully not leave the building any time soon.
Poki Poblano Fusion Lounge
6910 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 1 July 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Kimchee Pancakes, Roasted Poblanos, Taquitos, Tuna Tiraditos, Spicy Bowl, Peruvian Corn, Mango-Sticky Rice Pudding