Entering Sons of Thunder, past pictures of surfboards and surfing, you might think this Murray Hill restaurant is dedicated to the thundering of waves. In a sense it is.
The top dish here is poké, derived from a Hawaiian snack based on marinated raw tuna. The name, however, derives from the Bible: among the 12 apostles, says the Book of Mark, were “James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder.”
Partners named James and John founded the restaurant last fall.
Poké sounds like a lunch treat you could whip up at home, but that choice has never discouraged New Yorkers from preferring their meals the easy way. And why not? Put together by a skilled hand, poké is pretty tasty, healthy and not too costly.
The first thing to learn about poké is how to say it, especially because the accent mark frequently does not appear above the “e.” It’s pronounced “poh-kay,” and getting it wrong is a sure sign you’re unfamiliar with things Hawaiian. “People often pronounce it ‘po-kee,’ or worse, ‘poke,’ as in I will poke you if you pronounce poke wrong,” one travel website explains.
It seems that New Yorkers who know Hawaii well have long yearned for marinated fish on rice, poké-style, making do with Japanese rice bowls and the like.
Now poké is having a New York moment, with at least half a dozen poké joints popping up around town. Sons of Thunder, located on an awkward stretch of 38th Street near Third Avenue, was the first to offer it and is also the best, says Ligaya Mishan, the dependable New York Times reviewer of obscure eateries, who should know because she grew up in Honolulu.
Though the restaurant opened in October, ConEd has yet to provide the gas service it needs to fatten up its menu with burgers and fries. So plug-in appliances are delivering a chili bowl ($7.50), skinny all-beef hot dogs in four styles ($3.50 to $5.50) — and poké ($7.50 to $10.75).
The seafood choices to top off your poké bowl consist of raw ahi tuna, raw salmon and steamed octopus and vegetarian options like bean curd and golden beets. The toppings rest on a bed of white or brown rice and mixed lettuces, accented with radish, onion, cucumber, seaweed, sea salt and a spoonful of bright red flying fish roe, called tobiko. The whole thing is finished off with a generous squirt of your choice of shoyu — Japanese soy sauce — or spicy sriracha aïoli. You order at the front counter and pick up your food in the rear for carryout or ample in-house seating.
The chili bowl stars finely ground beef chili spread across a base of brown or white rice. Instead of beans, the chili is reinforced with thick wedges of fresh tomato, grated onion, chopped scallion and sprigs of fresh cilantro. A banh mi hot dog is buried in julienned carrot and daikon radish, slivers of cucumber and cilantro amid a blend of sauces providing garlic, heat and perhaps a touch of heartburn as well.
Sons of Thunder offers a thoughtful drinks menu with a few draft beers, wine by the glass, draft Saranac root beer, house-made shakes using organic ice cream and a lovely, lightly sweetened strawberry lemonade.
The place gets crowded from noon to about 1:30 p.m., but the wait is not too long, the staff are friendly and efficient and the noise level is tolerable. The sparely furnished dining area in the back is well lighted and equipped for families with children’s books and a toy fire engine. The spic-and-span unisex bathroom is a welcome provision.
Sons of Thunder is open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. It is located at 204 East 38th Street, just east of Third Avenue. (646) 863-2212
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.