If he weren’t a chef, John Ng of Zen Box Izakaya might be a kung fu master. This is literally true: the architect-turned-izakaya co-owner has been practicing martial arts for 16 years, having begun his training while living in San Francisco. “When I first came to Minnesota, I told my wife [Lina Goh]: ‘I really want to open my own kung fu school.’” Ng summarizes her brutally practical response: “I got immediately shut down by her, because ‘it would never make any money! Forget it!’ Which is pretty true,” he laughs.
This Mill District eatery celebrates the fun and electric side of Japanese dining culture through its street signage, its Hitachino beer tap handles, and its steady line of ramen obsessives waiting for tables. Married team John Ng and Lina Goh travel to Japan often, where they seek out the best ramen shops and learn noodle and broth techniques to bring home. Weekend specials often sell out, but the standard pork-broth tonkotsu never disappoints, especially sided by takoyaki octopus balls or flame-torched raw aburi salmon.
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Zen Box Izakaya, Minneapolis: Best ramen in town—it's not even close.
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.”