Bennett: Project Poke and its sushi doughnuts are another success for Westminster native Andy Nguyen
Within minutes of Project Poke — one of Orange County’s many strip-mall poke shops — quietly unlocking its doors at 11 a.m. on a recent Thursday, the kitchen received its first order for a sushi doughnut. By day’s end, the store would easily sell hundreds of this latest menu addition: a photogenic, fish-topped circular sushi roll, which, yes, tastes as good as it looks.
The Instagram-famous novelty food item was not invented here, but when Project Poke started serving its version nearly two months ago, it became the only place in the U.S. to offer it as part of its regular menu.
Almost instantly, the dish went viral.
“We just try our best to have fun with the product. We never go into it thinking this item is going to change our entire life,” Project Poke co-owner Andy Nguyen says one morning outside the 7-month-old Fountain Valley shop. “We couldn’t predict that there would be lines wrapping around the corner here for a sushi doughnut, but it did completely change how people view the store, which is good because poke is so saturated.”
Though humble about his success, Nguyen is no stranger to seeing lines of phone-clutching millennials clamoring for his picture-friendly products.
He and one of his childhood friends, Scott Nghiem, launched Afters Ice Cream, which made neon ice cream scoops shoved into thick, sugary doughnuts the West Coast’s answer to mashups like the cronut and ramen burger. (Started in Fountain Valley in 2014, Nguyen says that by the end of 2017 there will be 30 Afters locations).
In the few years since, the young Westminster native has collaborated with various chefs, investors and friends on even more exciting food-related projects in O.C., and in the process built a lucrative, community-building empire out of his own insatiable interest in eating and sharing pretty things.
“I’m the ultimate consumer,” Nguyen says. “I get excited about everything, so if I see something I get excited about, I think other people are going to get excited about it.”
After Afters, there was GD Bro Burger, which Nghiem and Nguyen helped launch into a brick-and-mortar by turning the food truck’s standard brioche buns into social-media-ready red-tinted ones. They also co-founded two short-lived concepts: U Jelly, a next-level doughnut shop with Cheetos and pizza-stuffed croissants, and Nudo Nudo, a pho spot where you could add a fried egg to your soup (Project Poke now lives in the former U Jelly space).
Nguyen also ideates for several other passion projects: Milk Box, a boba shop with beautifully layered drinks that uses premium ingredients; Pig Pen Delicacy, which boasts a burger that instead of a bun uses deep-fried discs of macaroni and cheese; and Neptunes Raw Bar, an Artesia restaurant that recently became the first place in the U.S. to start serving the so-called “floating noodles,” a dish that gives the illusion of airborne chopsticks holding up a mouthful of ramen noodles.
“They’re gorgeous and fun, and they get people having conversation and out eating again,” Nguyen says of the viral dishes he comes up with. “Especially this generation; everybody’s on their phone so they’re not interacting as much, and this gives them a way to go out. They might not be interacting when they’re shooting photos, but when they’re standing in line, they’re talking, they’re getting to know each other more. It’s important.”
Nguyen never set out to be a game-changing food entrepreneur. In fact, when he and Nghiem first linked up, each ran his own thriving street-wear brand; Afters was merely a hobby, created so they would have somewhere to hang out and eat desserts late at night.
Same goes for the duo’s wildly popular Instagram account, @TryItOrDiet, which they started about the same time as Afters as a way to get free food in exchange for promotion. The feed’s colorful, stylized photos and videos of cutting-edge foodstuffs became the de facto aesthetics of many of today’s social media influencers, and led to the founding of the year-old marketing and PR company, Squad Goals.
This year, though, Nguyen says he hopes to move away from the crazy food for which he’s become known and use his voice (as he calls his social media presence) to make a bigger impact on his community.
He’s got art and politics and sports all on the mind (and a nonprofit that sends him and friends to speak at local high schools), but more imminently, he’s teaming up with local Vietnamese-American chefs Anchor Hitch’s Mike Pham and Dos Chinos’ Hop Phan for a new concept at 4th Street Market in Santa Ana. The Pig Pen stall there will also be converted into an incubator for yet-to-be-decided future ideas.
“We want to share the stories of the new Vietnamese culture,” he says. “We’re trying to take elements of things we’ve learned form our heritage and put our modern twist on it. We call ourselves the New Saigon, the new voice of this generation and we can hopefully inspire others to push the envelope and hopefully impact the community at the same time.”
Project Poke is at 16051 Brookhurst St., C, Fountain Valley. Call (714) 468-3809.
SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.