At 11:30 a.m. on a recent Friday, a line of people spilled out the door and onto the sidewalk in front of Freestyle Poké.
Less than a week after opening, the new fast-casual cafe at 509 Delaware St. in the River Market had already lured and hooked landlocked Kansas Citians on Hawaiian-style poke bowls made with raw fish and a rainbow of fresh ingredients, from sushi rice and zucchini noodles to mango and sweet potatoes.
Owner Jeremiah Dupin knew that locals would dig poke — but he didn't anticipate needing to expand the cafe's kitchen so soon.
"We can't keep up with demand right now," he says. "Kansas City has blown away our expectations."
Now Dupin, a Kansas City native and entrepreneur who previously owned a popular poke business in Dubai, is just trying to ride the wave.
Want to try Freestyle Poké? Here are five things to know before you dive in.
1. It's pronounced POH-kay
Resist the urge to say "pokey" — the correct pronunciation rhymes with "OK." Remember when we went through this confusion years ago when Chipotle was suddenly everywhere?
2. At first, ordering can be overwhelming
At Freestylé Poke, bowls are made to order. Select a signature bowl if you want some of the ingredient choices made for you; choose a freestyle bowl if you want total creative control.
Bowls come in two sizes: The $9.95 "good" bowl is smaller than the $13.50 "best" bowl. Customers first choose a base from five options: sushi rice, black rice, quinoa, zucchini noodles or romaine lettuce. Proteins come next and include raw tuna, salmon, cooked shrimp, cooked chicken and tofu.
The next step, mix-ins, add color to the bowl. Picture red tomatoes, green snow peas and orange mango. Customers also select a marinade, toppings and sauce.
I froze up at the toppings stage because there were so many options. Did I want masago? Seaweed salad? Togarashi chili spice? What is Togarashi? Do I even like masago, those tiny orange fish eggs that often top sushi rolls?
Freestyle Poké employees recognized the panic in my eyes and patiently guided me through the choices.
"If it's your first time, have a little faith in us," Dupin says. "You really can't mess up a poke bowl."
Beverage options are also plentiful: Choices include kombucha, coconut water, aloe water, local beer, wine and sake.
3. You can't go wrong with a Ride the Wave bowl
The best-selling signature bowl, Ride the Wave, also happens to be Dupin's favorite. It starts with raw salmon marinated in truffle yuzu ponzu sauce. The fish is mixed with avocado, sweet potato and green onion, and served with the customer's choice of base and toppings.
Dupin says he used to eat a Ride the Wave bowl two or three times a day.
Try one and you'll see why: The dish is light yet satisfying, with a citrusy kick from the ponzu sauce. Turn up the heat with spicy cashews and a zig-zag of Sriracha mayo.
4. It's not the only poke place in KC
If Freestyle Poké has you craving raw fish more often, there are more options to explore.
Poke Bar serves the Hawaiian specialty at 6576 North Oak Trafficway. The Aloha bowl ($9.99-$12.99, depending on size) comes with spicy tuna, rice, red and green onion, crispy garlic and sesame seeds.
5. More Freestyle Poké locations are coming
Dupin says he hopes to add a second Freestylé Poke in the Kansas City area this year. After that, he wants to expand the concept throughout the Midwest, to cities such as St. Louis, Denver and Nashville.
He figures any city where people crave nagiri, maki and sashimi would welcome a poke bowl cafe.
"If they like sushi, it's an easy entry," he says.