The restaurant industry tucks an expectation of compromise into its current buzz term “fast casual.” The diner anticipates, and often experiences, the precise level of quality implied by the term given to counter-service restaurants that use better ingredients than fast-food joints.
Though most everything tastes fresher at Chipotle than at Taco Bell, for example, one still leaves Chipotle thinking, “That was a lot of burrito for $7,” instead of, “That was really something.”
Fish Face Poke Bar, the new Hawaiian fish-salad place from innovative Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine chef and co-owner Billy Ngo, in some ways recalibrates the fast-casual barometer. Because its food is really something.
Fish Face, which opened in July in the Warehouse Artist Lofts Public Market on R Street downtown, initially wows with the bright, clean flavors of its pokes, which are served to order, the patron choosing protein (selections include raw ahi tuna and salmon and poached octopus), sauce and other ingredients, like one does at Chipotle or Pieology. But here, the diner does not point to ingredients while moving down a serving line. Instead, he or she jots them down, on a sheet of paper the restaurant provides, to hand to the cashier.
Fish Face also impresses by filling up diners without slowing them down. Ngo, who is riding California’s current poke wave with this spot and another planned for Carmichael, leads with proteins and minimizes carbs and dairy, usually the life blood of fast casual.
But dining at Fish Face requires concessions of its own, like paying a bit more than expected for a quick lunch at a counter restaurant. “Customizable” dishes here, unlike at Chipotle or Pieology, do not come with a set price. Poke bowls ($8 small, $12 medium, $16 large) include a protein, sauce, green and white onions, seaweed and sesame seeds. Everything else, from jalapeños (50 cents) to avocado ($2), costs extra.
The base-line poke needs few accoutrements to shine, though, given Fish Face’s high quality of ingredients. Its ahi and salmon are sushi grade. Its sturgeon, which is glazed with house sesame soy sauce and torched before hitting the bowl, is local, from Passmore Ranch.
I’ve eaten bowls from fast-casual Asian restaurants for decades, and never tasted sauces as nuanced as Fish Face’s yuzu ponzu and spicy kimchi. Both use the house-made ponzu sauce, which starts with gluten-free soy and resides in umami earthiness before lifting into rice-vinegar brightness and adding lemon-juice tang.
The tart factor multiplies when the ponzu meets extract from Japanese yuzu fruit, in the yuzu ponzu sauce, which elevates every piece of fish it hits from simply to brilliantly fresh. Those seeking more heat will like the spicy kimchi, the ponzu in which cuts the intensity of the sauce’s premade chili-paste base.
Sauce controls the bowl at Fish Face. Fatty salmon and slightly chewy octopus provide heft and meaty texture, but taste-wise, sauce overtakes these and other proteins and the seaweed, which serves as a flavor sponge.
We tried all five sauces. Only the creamy cilantro pesto lacked the oomph required of a bowl-dominating element.
Our lone quibble with the remaining sauces – sesame-soy and wasabi – was saltiness. But it does not become evident until bowl’s bottom, after other ingredients have enjoyed an extended soak. We offset the saltiness by ordering a side of perfectly cooked sushi rice, and adding it to the mix.
Our visits to Fish Face followed a strategy of slow escalation. The first bowl consisted of octopus, sesame-soy sauce and a single side, daikon sprouts. The sprouts’ slight radish heat combines with the onions’ crisp taste to lend this barely augmented poke plenty of complexity.
By the third visit, we had grown adventurous, ordering salmon with yuzu ponzu, jalapeño, persimmon and macadamia nut. This combination hit every key spot on the flavor spectrum – salt, sweetness, earthiness, heat, fat – and gave me a new appreciation of macadamias. Pre-poke, macadamias were the less desirable alternative, to a puka-shell necklace, among gifts brought back by loved ones who visit Hawaii. Post-poke, macadamias equal crunch and unexpected creaminess.
Note to the budget-conscious: The loaded $14.50 poke did not blow away the simpler $13 octopus-and-sprout one. And if both choices sound spendy for a counter-service spot, Fish Face offers $4 hand rolls and a knockout $3 kimchi side.
The hand rolls come in a plastic-wrapped, roll-your-own setup I never figured out, despite an in-house demonstration. No matter. I eventually got the nori – which tasted fresher and more immediately of the sea than most seaweed wraps I’ve – around the rice and fish. The rich lomi roll, with salmon, onion and chili oil, stands out among the house rolls.
Though most recipes originated with Ngo, Fish Face kitchen manager Paul Rodriguez came up with the wonderful house kimchi. Made with garlic, Asian-market salted baby shrimp, Korean chili powder and Napa cabbage and fermented for four days, this kimchi achieves the perfect level of rottenness. Like all good kimchis, it leads aromatically with funk. But its flavors run deep, and its cabbage stays crisp.
Service is fast and the staff courteous. On two occasions, someone helped us carry our trays of food to the table. There was more interaction in general than what one experiences at chain fast-casual restaurants.
The setting can be problematic, however. Though conditions at WAL Public Market, which sits in a converted warehouse space, are meant to be a bit rough-hewn, they bordered on inhospitable on one recent Sunday.
It was warm-ish outside but noticeably warmer, and stuffy, inside. The cashier said the air conditioning was on but it sometimes took a while to make its way through the large public market, which holds Fish Face, Metro Kitchen + Drinkery and other businesses. The black metal gate covering Metro Kitchen, which was closed that day, contributed to an almost-oppressive feel.
Temperatures evened out on subsequent visits, but noise became an issue. Voices bounce around the concrete-floored structure.
I prefer sitting outside, on what still looks like a spruced-up loading dock. This seating area overlooks a stretch of R Street that hasn’t disconnected from its industrial past, and evokes San Francisco’s transforming Potrero Hill neighborhood in the 1990s and early 2000s, in appearance and air of great possibility.
My visits occurred before the recent chill, but the uncovered, unheated outdoor space likely remains pleasant on a sunny afternoon. (Fish Face’s owners are looking at improvements to the outdoor seating area.)
Regardless of temperature, inside or out, the distinctively urban WAL Public Market offers more character than strip malls that house most counter-service restaurants.
Fish Face might be the fast-casual compromise most worth making. One that requires you to pay a few bucks more, but for a meal that’s memorable instead of serviceable.
Fish Face Poke Bar
1104 R St., Suite 100, Sacramento, 916-706-0605, www.fishfacepokebar.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily
Beverage options: Sake by the carafe, bottle, box and can. Sapporo and Track 7 beers on tap. Specialty sodas.
Vegetarian friendly: -ish. Fish Face offers tofu-and-cucumber protein options for hand rolls and poke. But fish dominates here.
Gluten-free options: Yes. Fish Face uses gluten-free soy sauce in its pokes. But its soy sauce packets contain gluten, and some menu items do as well. So always ask about individual orders.
Noise levels: Moderate to loud.
Ambiance: The Warehouse Artist Lofts Public Market containing Fish Face, Metro Kitchen + Drinkery and other shops sits in a converted warehouse that’s still heavily concrete. So things can quickly get loud inside. On one occasion, the building’s interior was too warm. But the outdoor seating area, on a nice night, is lovely, with its views of a still-developing stretch of R Street that feels very urban and full of potential.
Overall ☆☆☆ 1/2
The poke at this fast-casual restaurant is full of bright, clean flavors, and the house-made kimchi is perfectly pungent. Poke orders come out quickly. The setting can be slightly uncomfortable or thoroughly pleasant, depending on the day and where one sits.
Food ☆☆☆ 1/2
Ingredients are fresh, sauces are nuanced and the right poke combination can hit nearly every spot on the flavor spectrum.
Orders come fast, and the service staff is courteous. There’s more interaction with staff than one usually gets at a fast-casual restaurant.
Prices run slightly higher for a fast-casual place, but considering the quality of ingredients and level of culinary skill involved, they’re reasonable. Fish Face also offers combination deals like a small poke, side and soft drink for $13. The house-made kimchi, at $3, might be the best deal.