A Ramen-centric Izakaya owned by Chef & Wife in Downtown Minneapolis' Mill District.
We are devoted to the pleasures of Craft Ramen & Japanese comfort food. Zen Box Izakaya is THE place for ‘Good Food, Good Drinks and Good Company’.
Ramen is the hottest dish of the year, and no one is doing it better than John Ng and Lina Goh. From Kanazawa to Osaka, the co-owners have traveled to Japan countless times, undertaking a massive international study of ramen. They’ve become fast friends with some of the biggest names in the ramen business and have a reputation for putting together bowls of significant flavors. The broth is the key, carefully balanced with accompanying herbs and oils.
Mpls.St.Paul Magazine takes you into the kitchens of Upton 43, Heyday, Hola Arepa, Milkjam, Saint Dinette, and Zen Box Izakaya, all named 2016 Best Restaurants, for a behind-the-scenes view of how some of their standout dishes are made, from beginning to end.
When Zen Box Izakaya first opened, we barely knew what an izakaya was. Nearly all Japanese restaurants in Minneapolis were serving singularly sushi. Now we know we couldn't live without a cold Sapporo in one hand and a piece of chicken kara age in the other. This is also ground zero for great ramen. Chef and co-owner John Ng has traveled all over Japan to feed his ramen obsession and brings all those flavors back to our chilly little burg in occasional specials and the yearly Ramen Attacks!
"Zen Box Izakaya: Be Loud"
If Ireland coined the word “pub,” its equivalent in Japan is the izakaya. At least that’s the description given by John Ng and Lina Goh, the active co-owners (and husband and wife) of Zen Box Izakaya in Minneapolis. The izakaya in Japan is “a hangout, a place after work in which to be loud, be fun—that’s how it is at an Izakaya,” said Ng.
Goh agreed. “The spirit of the Izakaya is to have happy hour all the time.”
Get this straight: no sushi. Zen Box, downtown’s newest Japanese restaurant, forgoes the food hipsters’ status symbol in favor of the lunch-counter comfort foods of Nippon. A big obrigato — thank you — for that, and a compelling reason to sign a lease in the Mill District City Apartments it anchors. But that’s not to say the shortorder pub doesn’t attract its share of glam gourmets: The chopstick-wielding table of eight nearby looked like expats from Tokyo Vogue.
Conjure up thoughts of highly evolved drinking and Europe typically comes to mind, with its elaborate wines, aperitifs, digestifs, grappas, vin santo, brandies, vodkas, wine pairings, wine dinners, wine/cheese courses, et cetera. But Japan has its own culture of complex and elaborate drinking, and it’s based not on grapes but on grains—above all, rice. Sake comes in every variety, from sparkling (like Champagne), to sweet and rich (like Sauternes), to dry and stony (like Chablis). Shochu is a stronger alcohol made from rice, and, not unlike vodka, is served ice cold or on the rocks. And, of course, there’s beer, made with rice and malted barley in batches big (Asahi) and small (Hitachino). Naturally, with all this drinking comes eating, and just as the West has bar food, gastropubs, brasseries (named after breweries, after all), and so forth, Japan has its own drinking/food spots, most famously the izakaya, effectively a Japanese brasserie. Before this fall, if you wanted to eat at an izakaya you had to spring for a plane ticket to Tokyo, or at least California. No more! Minneapolis’s first official izakaya has opened downtown by the Guthrie Theater, and if you care at all about Japanese drinking you need to drop everything and get there—immediately.
The Twin Cities long ago got the memo that Japanese food isn't just about sushi and sashimi.
We have Tanpopo, a relaxing and refreshing temple to the holy chewy noodle, in Lowertown. We've got 100 percent authentic teishoku meals (think of them as the Japanese prix fixe) at Sakura. And we've got the little jewel box Obento-ya serving just-right bento meals.