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.
1 July 2018: 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.
1 July 2018: 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?
1 July 2018: 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.
1 July 2018: 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.
1 July 2018: 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.
1 July 2018: 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.
28 October 2018: Bombastic British chef, restaurateur, and television personality Gordon Ramsay advised diners not to ever order a restaurant’s specials, especially when there are more than two or three listed. In his breakthrough tome Kitchen Confidential, Tony Bourdain similarly cautioned against ordering specials, especially fish on Monday. While daily specials are sometimes made of ingredients chefs need to get rid of fast–vegetables approaching the end of their shelf-life, leftover sauces, fish that’s a bit foul, chefs such as Elvis use specials to showcase their creativity and flair and take pride in demonstrating their skills to wow their guests.
During our second visit, Valentino so vividly and enthusiastically described the day’s specials that we had to order both of them. First was a Yellow Curry, Shrimp and Noodles dish (giant grilled prawns served over a Thai inspired yellow coconut curry stew with grilled bak choy, bell pepper, mushroom, and vermicelli) as good as you’ll find at any Thai restaurant anywhere. The turmeric and coconut rich yellow curry has a sneaky heat and presents more savory notes than sweet ones. Four gigantic prawns are grilled to a nice char, but they still retain the snap of freshness. The vegetables are crispy and fresh and the vermicelli was smooth and delightful to eat. If ever a special of the day earned the distinction “special,” it’s this one.
28 October 2018: Poki Poblano’s second special is the answer to a prayer for those of you who lament the relative sparsity of meat on your favorite chicken wings. Elvis’s chicken lollipops are like chicken wings on steroids. Chicken Lollipops are an Indo-Chinese dish made by balling up all the meat from a chicken wing on the end of a wing bone. The area of the bone from which the chicken was scraped away sticks out from the ball of meat like a lollipop stick and can be used as a handle for eating the dish. Chicken lollipops can be marinated, breaded or deep fried and are traditionally served with some type of dipping sauce.
Poki Poblano’s Togarashi Chicken Lollipops are oven-roasted in a spicy togarashi (a toasty, sweet spice mix commonly comprised of seaweed, orange zest, ginger, sesame seeds, and chile powder) and agave glaze served over sweet potato mash and grilled green onions. First, if you’ve never heard of togarashi, you will. Innovative chefs like Elvis will make sure you do. The chicken lollipops (three per order) are addictive, so good you might swear off your favorite chicken wing should they make it onto the daily menu. The sweet potato mash, pickled and green onions are more than worthy accompaniment.
28 October 2018: Several years ago, über chef Kevin Bladergroen of Blades’ Bistro in Placitas introduced me to one of the most sublime seafood dishes I’ve ever had, a peerless black cod with a miso glaze. Me so crazy about that miso glaze which Chef Kevin learned from Roy Yamagushi, legendary founder of Hawaiian fusion cuisine. If the only miso you’ve ever had is the insipid, salty soup served at many Japanese restaurants, you’re probably wondering how a miso glaze can possibly be so exalted in my eyes. First, restaurants rarely prepare it in the manner Japanese cooks prepare it at home. In restaurants, the soup is essentially a thin miso-infused broth with maybe a cube or two of tofu and some scallions floating around. At many a Japanese home, the soup may include tofu, mushrooms, seaweed, green onions, potatoes and more.
A great miso glaze lends sweet, savory and smoky elements that pair magnificently with seafood. Poki Poblano’s simply named salmon dish is the best seafood dish we’ve had in New Mexico since that fabled black cod at Blades’ Bistro. A reddish Atlantic salmon is beautifully brushed with the miso glazed and given a nice grilled exterior char while preserving the moistness inside. It’s a tender fillet as flaky and delicate as salmon can get. Moreover, it’s absolutely delicious. Served with the salmon is a small ramekin of the Peruvian corn, white rice and “mixed vegetables,” a term which conjures up images of succotash (emphasis on the “suck”). Mixed vegetables ala Elvis means grilled onions, red peppers and spinach, a carnivore’s delight.
28 October 2018: In his terrific tome Kitchen Confidential, fellow sybarite Tony Bourdain blew the lid off brunch, explaining that “brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights” adding that “you can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but it’s still breakfast.” He obviously never saw Poki Poblano’s brunch menu. Frankly, it’s unlike most brunch menus you’ll ever see. It’s traditional brunch fare with an Asian flair with such unique offerings as a pork belly Monte Cristo, vegan tofu scramble and Korean steak and eggs. That’s what my Kim ordered.
Dismiss any images of American “steak” you might have. Korean steak, as served at Poki Poblano, is more akin to thin, grilled bulgogi which is marinated in a sweet barbecue-like sauce. Boneless short ribs are the beef of choice here and there’s only one thing wrong with them. Instead of the portion size Americans prefer, there’s only about four ounces worth. Two sunny side eggs (though you can have them any way you want them) are also on the plate along with an arugula salad and the addictive kimchi pancakes. Now this is a brunch you’ll happily get up for.
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: 28 October 2018
1st VISIT: 1 July 2018
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Kimchee Pancakes, Roasted Poblanos, Taquitos, Tuna Tiraditos, Spicy Bowl, Peruvian Corn, Mango-Sticky Rice Pudding, Korean Steak and Eggs, Miso Glazed Atlantic Salmon, Togarashi Chicken Lollipops, Yellow Curry Shrimp and Noodles