Paco Custodio Rojas realized something after arriving in the Philippines a few odd years ago: despite the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables and the abundance of seafood azure waters teeming in the azure waters surrounding the archipelago, there is a dearth of healthy dishes in the country that provides the optimum balance of carbohydrates and protein. It was a conundrum that remained unsolved until he came across a Hawaiian dish that met all of his requirements: quick, casual, and most importantly, delicious—the poke bowl. Poke, literally “to slice or cut” in Hawaiian, refers to chunks of raw, marinated fish—usually tuna—that is served with rice and vegetables with a drizzling of umami-packed sauces as the proverbial icing on the cake.
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It was a lightbulb moment for Paco; he immediately proposed the idea to his now business partner, Pablo Barbero—an opportunity to open a poke bowl establishment in La Union, a recognized surf destination in the Philippines. “Every since we have been in La Union, it has been a challenge to find a place serving healthy food,” reveals Paco, “When the opportunity came, we decide to be the first ones to provide that food.” Poke bowls, it would seem, was a good fit, given that surfing has its roots in the ancient Polynesian culture of fishermen riding the waves on a wooden board to return to shore with their catch. In the interest of practicality, it was important for the two to adapt it to the local palette. They began experimenting with different combinations to come up with their own renditions of the Hawaiian dish. Yet, while their creations play fast and loose with the traditional varieties, that doesn’t make the results less tasty. “We think that Hawaiian and Filipino cultures are very close,” relates Paco, “We didn't have to do much to put them together.” Freshness and a sense of the familiar for the Filipino diners were key considerations. “We go to the market everyday to get the seafood and we buy fresh vegetables from Baguio,” he reveals, adding that they also provide healthier alternatives to white rice such as red and black rice, and adlai, a powerhouse grain indigenous to the Asian region that is slowly gaining traction as a viable gluten free alternative to quinoa.
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As such, the result is a mouth-watering variety of items that reflect the local values of La Union, where the surfing ideal of inclusivity is found in pairing of the ingredients that make up the bowls. Altogether, it is a youthful and adventurous menu that presents the bounty of the locality in its freshest form, where every bite espouses the idea that freshest is always better. Here, rows of seafood gleaming with the sheen of the ocean is artfully arranged in a bed of fresh fruits and vegetables along your chosen grain. Most of the flavors are familiar yet distinct. Think: thick, sashimi-grade tuna slices coated with the nuttiness of sesame oil, squid pieces toasted with the sinus-clearing heat of wasabi, the rich salinity of fish roe cutting into the golden succulence of diced mangoes. Other alternative offerings include a smattering of skewers grilled to perfection and hearty sandwiches that make use of pandesal as its pastry base.
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From this jumpoff point, there is much to expect from the enterprise, as they set their eyes on opening future branches in other surfing destinations of the Philippines, namely Baler and Siargao. “This is the perfect food for people in the health and fitness circle, people who think healthy food is boring,“ promises Paco, “You can look forward to more innovative pokes and salad-wraps from us.”
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Photographs by Vyn Radovan