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Saturday
Jun252016

PinKU Japanese Street Food

Story and Photos by Julie Craven

PinKU Japanese Street Food doesn't fit neatly into a category. It's not casual, although you do order at the counter. It's not fine dining, despite the fact the food is beautifully presented. There are no reservations and no tipping. According to Xiaoteng Huang (X) and John Sugimura, partners and the founders of the restaurant, that's exactly how they planned it.

The same could be said for the menu. There's salmon, shrimp and tuna, but not in a predictable way. Japanese signature items, but with a twist. So how does a first time guest choose? “Pick what you like," John explained. "If you like salmon, you'll like it seared with rice cakes.”

I chose the Spicy Tuna Fat Roll and Crispy Pot Stickers. Doug and Noah went for the Jumbo Crispy Shrimp with Radish Noodles and more pot stickers. In the spirit of full disclosure, we ended up getting another order of pot stickers after that. The PinKU Elixir was summertime-yummy; sake, Champagne, orange liqueur, pomegranate and lime. We cleaned our plates, or should I say our very cool, shiny serving trays.

“We're a mom and pop shop, without being mom and pop," John explained.  "More typically, family operations did this by choice and that's an empowering part of our culture.”  A conversation at a sushi class was the spark for the idea between the two partners. The past two years they've had a laser focus on details large and small as they prepared for the launch. They perfected the menu with catering work for what they estimate was about 5000 people.

“We love how we have been able to tell the story of Japanese food, Japanese art and the Japanese experience in the United States,” X explained. The experience for both of them is unique - and it’s personal.

John is a second generation Master Sushi Chef, who is Minnesota-born and spent time in Japan. He may be starting a business from scratch, but his roots go deep in Japanese food - his grandmother was a sushi chef in the 1920’s. That alone is remarkable, as women for the most part did not have a shot at that coveted role in the culinary world.

She lost the restaurant when the family was sent from Sacramento to a Japanese-American internment camp at Tule Lake, California during World War II. She reopened the restaurant after the war, so John describes PinKU as the third round of a family restaurant. He smiled when he talked about how this venture helps his family rebuild and restore routines related to their culture.

 

"We're inviting you into our house,
that's the greatest compliment of all when
you are invited into someone's home."

 

X has a different story but with many parallels. “This is my American Dream. My parents came here to provide the best experience for me to succeed. I want to seize the opportunity.” He and his family came to Minnesota from China when he was 12 and his path followed a familiar track with college and a career in the corporate world. But he wanted to be an entrepreneur and leave his own legacy.

He left Target Corporation and went to work at Chipotle Mexican Grill. “I washed dishes and cleaned grills. I wanted to understand the entire restaurant experience, not just the taste, but how it works, what you hear, what you feel.”

Why this Northeast neighborhood for their location?  John described a checklist they had in mind. They wanted to walk to the bank, walk to the grocery store. They loved the sense of community. It's kid friendly, another item on their checklist (there's a section of the menu titled “kiddos” with ramen noodles and pot stickers). They've found both the neighborhood and the business community welcoming.

There's interest already in classes and events, but the partners agreed they want to walk first. They acknowledged they have hosted one birthday party in the short time since they opened, but they want to be thoughtful and focus on guest experience first.

So what has surprised them in the days since they opened the doors? “We're surprised that people are into what we're into. Trying to get the art, trying to get the food. They're embracing the story we have to tell. Everything here is what we're proud of, where we came from. We're inviting you into our house," John added, "that's the greatest compliment of all when you are invited into someone's home.”

Location: 20 University Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN  55413

Website: pinkujapanese.com

Julie Craven can be reached at julie@millcitymedia.org.

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