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Island Flavors Come to SEA

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January 9, 2020

If you can’t get to Hawaii this year, you can still get a taste of the islands at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). The proclaimed “Godfather of poke” and Hawaiian celebrity chef Sam Choy brought Aloha vibes from his home in Kona-Kailua, Hawaii, where he lives with his wife and four dogs, to SEA. Choy opened his newest restaurant, Poke to the Max, on the D Concourse. It’s a joint venture between Choy and local Airport Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (ACDBE) and food entrepreneurs, Leeann Subelbia and Max Heigh.

The food truck turned adored Pacific Northwest dining experience is now serving up island favorites at five brick and mortar restaurants in the state of Washington. The newly opened SEA location is the first to feature a full-service restaurant and bar, along with a full breakfast menu and grab-and-go for travelers in a hurry. Passengers can enjoy breakfast favorites with a Hawaiian twist like morning fried rice with a sunny side-up egg and choice of spam, bacon, or chicken sausage. Or the sunrise sandwich served on a sweet Hawai’ian bun and stuffed with egg frittata, Tillamook cheddar cheese, and choice of spam, bacon or chicken sausage, just to name a couple. All-day menu favorites include Ahi Tuna and salmon poke rice dishes, salads and wraps, garlic fried chicken, teriyaki short ribs, and handcrafted musubis. Don’t miss the handcrafted cocktails served in a spam can!

Since the first poke was served at Choy’s food trucks, the Native Hawaiian raw fish dish has exploded throughout Seattle’s dining scene and around the world.

We had a chance to sit down with Sam as he celebrated bringing fresh, exciting, and healthy flavors to travelers at SEA.

Sam Choy and business partner Max Heigh recently opened Poke to the Max at SEA.

When did you first become interested in food and cooking?

From a very young age I loved food. As far as being a chef, I didn’t start to see that as a career until my early teens. I felt like “this wouldn’t be a bad gig, cooking for someone.” I didn't know it would turn into what it has now. Life’s been very good to me. I have my mom and dad to thank for giving me all the knowledge I have and instilling a love of food in me. My parents each showed me the artistry of being a chef in their own ways. My mom created oil paintings and my dad was a fabulous kitchen chef who was ahead of the game. That's how I got started. Living in Hawaii, we grew all our food, we caught and produced all our proteins. I thought that that was the way everyone ate — I just loved it. That memory always inspires me when I walk through a farmers market. If I see fields of strawberries or fields of artichokes, my mind is already going, “I want to do this … I want to do that.” I like creating food like that, being very seasonal.

Garlic fried chicken is one of the most popular dishes at Poke to the Max.

You’ve just opened Poke to the Max at SEA. What’s led up to this moment?

When I decided to bring my Hawaii flavors to Seattle and the West Coast my mom told me “no one knows you in Seattle.” So I started small with Poke to the Max food trucks rolling around town, and grew our business from there. Our first brick and mortar restaurant opened in Hillman City and it just started right from there six years ago. Today we have five locations in the Seattle area, including our new location at SEA. I love airports and I fly a lot. If an airport has great food, to me it’s a great airport. I’m so happy to be here at SEA.

It’s important to get to the airport early, so plan your meals around your time at the airport. At SEA, we’re planning to stick to the main core of the menu, but we’d love to add berries when they are fresh and salmon in the summer. The garlic chicken and our pokes are our top sellers.

Sam Choy recently opened up Poke to the Max at SEA.

Poke has become very popular, but it wasn’t always so well known. How long have you been making poke?

Since my early teens, I was really adamant about bringing poke to the rest of the world. I was pounding the pavement way back then. At every event I did I always served poke, whether I was on the East or West Coast. At first people kind of looked at it like “It’s raw. I don’t want to eat that.” I told them, “But do you like salmon grav lox? It’s like that.”

Once they try it, it’s done. They love it. We are serving that in our trucks all around this town and man, everyone just loves the poke salad … it's a great healthy food. We’re creating fresh recipes to satisfy the palate of people on the mainland. That’s what I do.

Try some poke, the next time you are at SEA.

How do you set yourself apart as a chef?

I try to create things that are simple but good. I always look at the seasons when I’m developing recipes because I don’t want to serve something hot in summer. I get a pulse on what people want to eat. If people are flying, they don’t want to eat anything too heavy. They want something fresh and exciting. I try to convey that in the menu. People are looking for low carb, more protein, veggies, things like that, as well as plant-based items like tofu. I’m also a champion for sustainability. I listen to Seafood watch group recommendations, and stay away from the fish on the “danger list”. As a chef, I want to make sure the next generation and next generation after that will have what we have; that’s always been on my forefront.

Poke tacos

What do you hope people experience while eating at Poke to the Max?

I hope they experience a great time. The other thing is I hope they have a memorable time. One year or two months from now, I want them to say, “Remember when we were at the airport and we had that meal? Man I want to go back there.” A great dining experience gets embedded in your mind.

Poke to the Max recently opened at SEA.

As a Hawaii resident, what interested you in building a business in Seattle and on the West Coast?

I travel a lot in and out of Seattle a lot and I know a lot of people from Hawaii who live here. I want to help bring the Hawaiian flavor here. We already have some great Hawaiian restaurants. My brother owns Patrick’s Cafe and Bakery in White Center. Before us, we knew many local people who left Hawaii and came here to start a new life. That’s why I like Seattle. I have history in the state of Washington too. I went to community college in the early days at Columbia Basin Community College in Tri Cities.

What’s the most important thing you learned about being a chef from your mom and dad?

My personality. They taught me to make sure to be real and keep things simple. They also taught me about how delicious using fresh ingredients in food can be. My dad was a humble chef but he made simple food amazingly good.

Check out the menu for Poke to the Max.

Sam Choy's Poke to the Max offers a full bar.

 

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