No GPS is needed to find Eater Miami’s winner for best fast casual restaurant of 2017, Ono Poke Shop: simply follow the wave of millennials cramming into the compact storefront on North Miami Avenue during lunchtime. The eatery — based on the latest health-forward food craze of raw fish served over rice or greens then tossed with veggies and umami-packed sauces — has such a strong focus on providing fresh fish delivered daily that its closing hours includes the apt hour of “or until sold out.”
Owner Nuriel Mayardi admits the making of Ono Poke can be chalked up to happenstance.
“I was in LA about 3 years ago on Venice Beach and I walked past a poke shack and was like, ‘wow, what is this?’ I had no idea. And even at that time, in LA, it wasn’t that popular yet. I tried it and loved it and thought, ‘wow, this is so cool!’”
He called up his good friend, Amir Anvari, a guy he grew up with in Miami. Anvari happens to be the sushi sous chef at the Japanese mainstay, Makoto, and pal Mayardi affectionately refers to as “the sushi guy.”
Anvari hadn’t heard of poke and was instantly on board with the idea of bringing it to South Florida, and Mayardi found the space when he accidentally drove by and saw a lease sign.
“We both agreed on keeping the place very simple — focus on fresh fish. Most poke shops are using a frozen product. For us, we said we are not going to do that, we’re going to go fresh tuna, fresh salmon, always fresh. Fresh and clean every day.”
They also decided to rely heavily on Japanese influences, as opposed to introducing flavors like mango and pineapple, commonly used in poke shops as an ode to its place of origin, Hawaii. The idea is to make the focus the fish, above all, a term Anvari coined as “deconstructed sushi.”
Techniques and practices Anvari has learned at Makoto, from which purveyors to purchase the best fish from, how to properly handle the fish, as well as the making of the dressings used, have helped Ono Poke stand out from the poke pack.
“The sauces are not the exact recipes, but the spicy mayo is very similar and the wasabi aioli on their salad is very similar to ours.”
Rice, a key component in a poke bowl, is also a trade skill learned from Makoto. Mayardi refers to it as “Makoto-inspired” but is hesitant to reveal much beyond that.
“Most people will just cook rice and throw it on the pot. We do ours sushi-style, which means we cut it with “su,” a flavoring for the rice. It’s a secret recipe — it’s one of those things where you wanna tell everyone what we are doing, but...” he ends the sentence with a mischievous grin.
Mayardi, whose family is in the hospitality business in Orlando, knows a lot about keeping customers happy and coming back.
“That’s a big part of the business also — as good as the food is you got to make sure that everyone is happy when they come.”
Mayardi delivers his friendliness in an unassuming and casual style, greeting each person that comes into the colorful restaurant and saying goodbye to them as they head out. The 30-year old is tall and lean, sports a man bun a slightly darker auburn than his beard, and a pastel pink shirt sporting the restaurant’s logo. Often times he will be working the line, preparing popular bowls like the spicy crunch tuna bowl (made with rice or greens, spicy tuna, jalapeño, red onion, pickled cucumber, and crispy tempura topped with wasabi aioli and eel sauce) or the ono king salmon bowl (rice or greens, Ora King salmon, pickled cucumber, red onion, jalapeño, micro greens, sesame seeds, topped with house shoyu and wasabi aioli.) They are also working on a vegan bowl with tofu, expected to be out in a couple of weeks.
Of course, guests are encouraged to design their own poke bowls, with Mayardi gently encouraging them to try toppings after learning more about their palate preferences.
Bowls are generous in size and extremely affordable, the small going for $13, the regular (which is really a large) for $16.
“If you broke down [the large bowl] and ordered that at a sushi bar, you’re looking at $25, and we sell it for $16.”
Mayardi admits the price point may be too low, but he doesn’t want to disappoint Wynwood regulars by increasing the cost, so prices there will stay the same. He is slated to expand and is working on opening a larger Aventura location later this year, which is where he grew up.
“We might have to adjust the price a little bit there, because for us to stay alive, we kind of have to.”
There’s also talk of moving to a larger Wynwood space when the lease runs out in 8 months, but Mayardi has plenty of time to figure that out and just as many offers from people wanting his restaurant nearby. The current 950-square-foot space seats about 20, although the bulk of the business is take-out.
Mayardi knows things have a way of working out. They did for him with the creation of Ono Poke.
“It is so weird how it happened. It’s funny how the world works — one thing leads to another in so many different aspects of life. For this busness, yeah, it happened to be one of those – hey, that’s cool, hey that place would be cool for it, hey, my good friend, you know all about sushi.”