Inside Pure Poke, fishing nets hang on the walls over a line of booths, dotted with colorful lures, and white to-go bags dominate a long table at the front of house. Behind the counter waits a rainbow of fresh fish, seaweed salad, mangoes, and tomatoes, plus Chelles Macarons, and pineapple soft serve. A small sauce bar endless customization, from soy sauce and eel sauce, to their own creations, homemade cilantro aioli, thai chile, spicy mayo, even house jalapeno relish.
It looks so effortless, you'd never know the kind of struggle it took to make it work.
“There were a lot of days where I felt like why did we do this?” One half of the husband and wife team, John Kim, said. “But in hindsight, if [Sophia] didn’t push us, this never would have happened.”
John and Sophia Kim both have roots in food, and California, where they met. He worked for Houston’s then opened a tapas place in California, while Sophie trained under a sushi chef. In 2017, they moved to Frisco with their newborn daughter like so many other people, in search of a good place to raise a family.
But Sophia also had a dream. As a classically trained Japanese sushi chef, she’d learned that there’s no disguise for bad fish or undercooked rice. There’s no amount of sauce that can fix poor quality, particularly when the sauce is house-made too. With no room for error, every bite has to be its best.
She’d also observed the shift to poke, which at the time, was exploding on the DFW dining scene. So the Kims opened their own poke restaurant, Pure Poke, at Hall Park, hoping to gain traction with the businesses that are headquartered there and at the Star, Frisco.
“I make sure the bills get paid,” John says. But Sophia is the heart of the restaurant, and the one in charge of the food. “Sophia brought her own recipes, knows how to handle fish, how to make her own ponzu sauce, she did the decor. She’s a one-woman machine.”
They opened with high hopes in 2018. But their first year was much more difficult than either of them could have anticipated. Despite their proximity to major Frisco locations, they faced away from Dallas North Tollway. But most of all, they opened a poke restaurant at the peak of DFW's poke boom, among dozens of others, entering a saturated market. They were also raising a toddler, while establishing a new restaurant--“so basically two toddlers,” as John put it.
“The first year was incredibly humbling and hard. I had never experienced something like that,” he admitted. “We laugh about it now, but at first it was a real struggle.”
The family practically lived in Pure Poke, without money to pay for outside help, and ate anything but endless bowls. In the beginning, they were ordering more than they were selling, so after closing, they took meals to families in need from their church.
“The first month, no one came for dinner,” John recalled. They considered five guests for dinner to be a good night. “We didn’t understand how long it would take for word to get out. People need time to decide where the best poke bowls are.”
His aunt and uncle, both retired, even followed them to Frisco to work at Pure Poke. They were “crazy enough,” as John put it, to believe in their dream. Sophia taught them to handle fish, and create all the sauces from scratch.
To get through the hardest days, he imaged each customer as a single LEGO brick, part of a structure that would take time to complete. “Building a business is building it one LEGO at a time,” he said. They clung to the idea that they didn’t need to go viral or be Instagram savvy. Instead, they were going to do their absolute best work, and attract regulars that way, one at a time. It's a lesson he passed on to their neighbor, a coffeeshop and cafe, Daily Grinds, which opened just before the pandemic hit.
“Luckily, we made it work,” he said. “Now, we’ve established a much more healthy balance in our lives.”
Pure Poke is primarily a build-your-own concept. They started with complimentary miso soup for dine-in, a variety of toppings, and raw fish sourced from all over the world, ahi tuna, hamachi yellowtail, and Scottish salmon. But they also have a wide variety of fully cooked options, much more than a typical poke place has.
One day while passing out coupons outside, he realized that a lot of the people didn't want a menu of just raw fish. “In California, you’d never see beef bulgogi on the menu,” he added. “But we realized we needed to adapt.”
Sophia whipped up her own recipes for beef bulgogi, ginger shrimp, organic tofu, tamago egg, cold-smoked chicken, and even honey-miso salmon. They’re especially proud of their bulgogi beef, marinated until it’s perfectly tender and bright with citrus.
The first year they opened, eight months in, they hit the winter months. He learned that poke popularity follows the seasons. In winter, when the weather is colder, people gravitate toward pho and ramen, nutritious broths infused with warmth. Summer, when Texas heat reaches its brutal peak, poke thrives. (John joked that he checks his weather app every morning to predict how busy they’ll be.)
But then the New Year hit. In January and February, Pure Poke saw some of their best numbers ever, and their business kept thriving. Maybe people needed to fulfill New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier, or maybe Pure Poke was simply more established. Regulars were returning, and John and Sophia’s church knew them as the poke people. But month by month, people came back.
"That was when I knew," John said. "It was like DFW had accepted us."
When the pandemic hit, Pure Poke was already prepared; online orders were already a robust part of the business. About 75 percent of their business is currently online, and the table at the front is full of orders during the lunch rush.
But John noticed that for many other businesses, especially with older owners, that wasn’t the case. So they've used their space and expertise to host seminars for other business owners at their church who had never considered online sales, and didn’t know how to set themselves up. It felt like taking care of family, he said. In the future, they hope to do more community outreach like that.
Now, their daughter is seven. Their aunt and uncle, now experts, still come in every morning at 7, when the fish comes in, to prepare for the day. They also have a bigger staff, largely high schoolers who work part-time. "My goal is to make working at Pure Poke the best part-time job ever," John said. He knows they won’t be around forever, but he wants them to get the most out of it as possible.
“It’s easy to forget about what brought us here, why we’re doing what we’re doing,” he said. “There will always be issues and obstacles. That’s life. But we just keep on serving with a smile. Love and service are at the heart of our business. It’s what we’re here to do.”
6750 Gaylord Pkwy. #160, Frisco | 214.396.9933 | purepoketx.com