Before Poke Bowls Became Trendy, Bob Wasabi Searched The Globe To Create His Own In Kansas City
Bob Shin, who you might know as Bob Wasabi, is known around town for serving up some of the freshest fish in Kansas City, Missouri, at his small sushi restaurant on 39th Street.
But, his daughter Tanya Shin says he has another nickname.
"He’s known as the complainer," she laughs.
Shin has earned this reputation from the fishermen who sell him fresh salmon, sea urchin, octopus and eel every day. Shin says he's willing to pay the price for the highest quality fish he can find, and, if it’s not to his standard, he sends it back.
"That’s why I own my own place, I want to do my own style. The right style," Shin says.
He opened Bob Wasabi about four years ago. He serves made to order sushi, sashimi and nigiri. It’s a traditional Japanese menu, with one exception. A poke bowl.
Native to Hawaii, poke is traditionally a fishermen’s dish — after a day of fishing, they’d take their raw scraps, and sprinkle them with Hawaiian salts and seaweed for a quick snack.
"Still, even at McDonald’s they’re serving poke," Shin says.
Tossed with a light sauce and fresh vegetables, and served atop a bed of sticky sushi rice, this simple, old school dish becomes the poke bowl. It’s become somewhat of a fad on the mainland in recent years.
Shin claims he was the first one to serve a poke bowl in Kansas City.
"Now it’s a lot of people using poke now. I think I’m the first one. They start the poke here, there. Everybody copies me," Shin laughs.
He brought his techniques from Maui, where he lived and worked for a few years. He's originally from South Korea — where his grandmother ran a well-known restaurant in the early 1900s — but he's lived all over the United States. When he first immigrated to the U.S., he worked at the fishmarkets in New York City.
"Every morning, all four seasons, we would go to the docks and pick up fish every day. Five or six in the morning, me and my wife were there," Shin says.
That's where he learned all he knows about fresh fish, he says. With all the fresh fish he has on hand every day at his restaurant now, Shin felt he had to serve a poke bowl.
He says everyone has their own style when it comes to a poke bowl. His is simple, and it's all about the sauce.
He combines a kind of chili water, infused with fresh chili peppers and garlic cloves, with a dark secret sauce that's sweet and rich. He lets each marinate for about a week before serving the sauce, otherwise he says it would be too pungent.
Unlike many poke bowls on the mainland, he doesn't serve his with a mayonnaise-based sauce. The trick to his sauce is that it's light like a vinaigrette, with a little kick.
Shin says he enjoys getting to be his own boss, although, he jokes, he has some competition from his family — too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak. With his wife, and Tanya, his other daughter Esther who visits, his son and his son-in-law, it’s definitely a family affair.
That's the real secret, he says.