If you have visited the food stalls at the French Market downtown in the past month, there is one line in particular that exceeds all others. The line is so long, in fact, they had to create additional space in the market just for the line.
I'm talking about Aloha Poke Co. If you like sushi or other raw fish appetizers, for example, at restaurants, then you'll love these poke (poh-kay) bowls. It's basically a bowl of sashimi grade tuna or salmon mixed with whatever fixings you choose and magical sauces. Hawaiians have been eating it forever, and the trend is starting to take off in the costal U.S.
Deerfield native Zach Friedlander, owner of Aloha Poke Co., first tried this cuisine in California and thought it could fill a void in the fast-casual dining market.
A Solomon Schechter grad, Friedlander worked his way up from a bar back to a successful restaurateur in under a decade. With no experience in the hospitality industry, he started out by passing his resume around Chicago. A fellow member of the tribe and bar owner looked at his resume and said, "Another Jewish guy from Deerfield, like me -- can you start at 7?"
Zach worked behind the bar for several years at Hogsalt cleaning glasses and refining his mixology skills while soaking up all the knowledge from one of the most successful restaurateurs in Chicago. A wrist injury followed by surgery at 25 pushed him out of the bar and into operations, where he fell in love with building a team and being able to create a great restaurant culture. He spent three years honing his skills at the Bedford and Carriage House before deciding to go out on his own.
Motivation, in the form of name-calling from his friend and father helped to push Friedlander to take the plunge and open Aloha Poke (a Lakeview location opened last month and they'll also be in the Loop's soon-opening Revival Food Hall).
Despite the quick popularity, Friedlander remains humble, hard-working and a Jew You Should Know.
1. If you could alter the space time continuum and teach young Zach Friedlander one thing, what it be?
Patience. I've always been more of a creative thinker. I have all these ideas in my head and I would forecast all things, and get way ahead of myself. A little patience would be a huge help, especially working in management. I would tell myself: observe, listen and then react."
2. Where does the infatuation Jews have with Asian food come from?
Maybe it all starts with Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant and it just grows from there. And if you think about it, Lox is sort of like sushi. You start with bagel, cucumber and lox, and sushi is basically that with a different carb holding it all together. And then pho/ramen is like matzo ball soup, they are both warm and healing.
3. How did you end up opening Aloha Poke?
I was a really picky eater. This might sound odd but I never liked lox. I was a meat-eater. As I got into the hospitality industry, I was looking for what the void was. What was missing in the industry was a fast-casual spot that was healthy with a little treat (the sauce). There are some restaurants that are healthy but in PR only. And then there are a few healthy spots, but not the most exciting options. Poke is healthy and then we have the sauces that satisfy that inner fat kid we all have. You still have to give people want they want.
4. If you had free time, what would you be doing with it?
Travel. Take my dad around the world. I would ski the French Alps, visit Chile, Argentina, Alaska. You name it.
5. You can open up a restaurant anywhere, where would it be, and what are you serving?
My favorite service is brunch so I would love a little egg type café in Sayulita. It's a great little surf town in Mexico. Then a hot dog spot."
6. What drew you into the service industry?
I've always been the guy that helps out at friends' parties. Cleaning up ,grabbing a drink for someone -- it's just in my nature. That's the hospitality industry, serving people, making sure everyone is enjoying themselves. You get to make people feel good. It's like Shabbat -- you invite people into your home, and you create this bond when you break bread. There's nothing else I would rather do.
7. How do you Jew in Chicago?
I am at the Matzo Bash every year. I try and attend services with my dad on the High Holidays. I feel like part of being Jewish is networking, and helping others, I try to do that often. My parents always encouraged me to make new friends, be kind and do mitzvahs. I feel like it's a Jewish thing to have a guy and connect people. I'm always ready to give people my diamond guy, real estate -- it helps on both ends."