Now open: Ono Poke and Agavos Cocina and Tequila 

Tinawat Klaimongkol-Gai

Photographs by Justin Fox Burks

Tinawat Klaimongkol-Gai

Tinawat Klaimongkol-Gai likes being a foodie ambassador in Memphis.

He was the first to offer a selection of ramen in Memphis at Skewer, which was near the Clark Tower.

When he found himself without a job after Skewer closed, he did a little traveling. What he noticed was a phenomenon in the form of fresh fish cubed and served over rice in bowls.

"Poke is everywhere now," Klaimongkol, or Gai, as he is called, says. "It's in all the big cities — New York, Chicago, L.A., Austin. But not here."

Now there is, thanks to ambassador Gai.

In mid-June, Gai opened Ono Poke at 3145 Poplar across from East High school.

Poke is a fish salad that originated in Hawaii before Hawaii was a state and has become popular among the surfing crowd as a protein-laden pick-me-up between surf sessions.

"A lot of different kinds of Asian people lived in Hawaii long before World War II, including Japanese, Filipino, and they all combine their food into unique dishes," Gai says.

click to enlarge Poke (fresh fish salad) at Ono Poke
  • Poke (fresh fish salad) at Ono Poke

Gai's menu works mostly in two forms — house bowls and build-your-own.

The house bowls include such concoctions as the Pele Bowl, the Big Wave, and the Buddha Bowl.

The Pele comes with tuna and crab stick, jicama, edamame, cucumber, jalapeño, carrot, and spicy Pele sauce. The Big Wave serves up salmon and crab stick, fresh greens, corn, seaweed salad, pineapple, tomato, and Yuzu Delight sauce — a sort of Japanese citrus sauce. And the Buddha Bowl is for all the vegetarians out there (holla!), with tofu, fresh greens, edamame, broccoli, tomato, jicama, and wasabi sauce.

All of his sauces are homemade, and all dishes come on either white or brown rice, buckwheat noodle, greens, or a mixture of two. All bowls come with a choice of toppings, including seaweed, sesame seed, cilantro, kimchi, onion, radish, and others.

So far, so good for Ono Poke.

"Everybody is enjoying trying all the different kinds," Gai says. "The menu is not fixed. It will be flexible according to what's in season and what I can get my hands on.

"I like new things, and I like Memphis," he added.

Ono Poke, 3145 Poplar, (901) 618-2955. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Website coming soon.

You remember those enchiladas at El Puerto — grilled chicken topped with cheese sauce and green sauce and sour cream?

Well, El Puerto might have closed (due to Cookout's buying the building), but the owners Esthela and Alex Rojas haven't gone anywhere. Well, actually they went about a mile northeast into the old Republic Coffee building at Walnut Grove and Tillman.

The Rojas are the couple, along with Esthela's brother and sister-in-law Cesar and Margaret Villalpando, behind the new restaurant and tequila bar Agavos Cocina and Tequila.

"We had been looking at opening another restaurant," Esthela says. "We were going to try to do both restaurants, but when Cookout bought the building, we just decided to close and make this a different concept."

The concept is to offer homemade dishes using their grandmothers' recipes served in an unexpected and very pleasant presentation.

"It's a little more fine dining, a little more upscale," Alex says.

So far, their No. 1 seller is the Tequila Shrimp — six jumbo shrimp served with a special tequila lime sauce along with a side and rice, lettuce, pico de gallo, and sour cream ($14.50).

They also fix a lot of hamburgers, the Agavoburger to be more precise — ground beef mixed with chorizo, served with onions, fried jalapeño, bacon, and chipotle mayo ($9.50).

They have quite the selection of tequilas and margaritas. Depending on how much you want to spend, you can sip on a 1942 Don Julio or Herradura Anejo or just a regular silver tequila along with just about everything in between, with close to three-dozen types of specialty tequilas to choose from.

And their menu boasts about 10 different signature margaritas, including the most popular choice of mango.

The Rojas and the Villalpandos will be adding more items to the menu soon, including those enchiladas we were just talking about, and pretty soon you can expect to see karaoke on the calendar as well as a Latino night with DJ Moi.

But don't expect to recognize the place. They changed it up quite dramatically from its previous incarnation with a curved wooden bar reminiscent of tequila barrels, painted walls, and colorful decorations evoking the colors of Mexico — "red for the harvest, blue for agavo, and green for when the plant is growing," says Esthela — as well as a beautiful mural of a blue agavos plantation on the north wall.

"We use fresh ingredients every day," Margaret says. "All of our food is homemade using our grandma's recipe."

Agavos Cocina and Tequila, 2924 Walnut Grove, (901) 433-9345. Hours are Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

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