Photos by Katherine Harris
The chicken "kara age" and "shumai" tempura are both tasty.
A traditional Japanese meal can be among the most ethereal and artfully composed dining experiences on the planet. But when a Japanese “salaryman” and his buddies want to catch a buzz and fortify themselves with a bit of food, they head to their local izakaya—a neighborhood establishment that serves strong brews and indigenous snacks that typically include fried, skewered, grilled, and pickled delights.
Until recently, this kind of fare has only been served locally at hot spots such as Masu, moto-i, and Obento-ya, but with the arrival of Zen Box Izakaya, the Twin Cities now boasts its first pure representation of the breed. That means lots of interesting alcoholic beverages, ambiance that’s comfortable but not notably hip or flashy, and dozens of shared-plate specialties that are modestly priced and portioned for groups. Co-owners John Ng and Lina Goh have operated the popular quick-serve Zen Box in the Minneapolis skyway for some time, but this recent venture represents a more purist pursuit to bring Japanese pub grub to the Twin Cities.
Izakayas are first and foremost about drinking, and there’s an entire menu dedicated to house specialties. Notably, you’ll find the Midwest’s first tap pour of Asahi beer, the top-selling lager in Japan, and a seasonal selection of Hitachino beers—on my visit, I tried a hoppy red rice ale with just a tad of sweetness. There’s also a trio of shochus—mid-strength liquors that are distilled from rice, barley, or sweet potato. My sweet potato version, served traditionally on the rocks, reminded me of a light scotch. Additional offerings include several sakes, along with some excellent tasting flights and a praiseworthy assortment of bottled beers and wines.
As for the food, there’s a hit-and-miss quality. The good news is that in the time since it opened in September, there’s already been at least one major overhaul that included reducing prices and increasing serving sizes. As the winnowing continues, I hope the reliability factor will increase.
Several of the most touted items were terrific. The most coveted by far was chasu yaki—fat-streaked cutlets of buttery pork belly that had been marinated, lightly flame-grilled, set atop sautéed onions, and drizzled with a citrus-tinged ponzu sauce. It was much better than another pork belly option called buta no kimchi—a lackluster combination of bacon and a low-intensity, somewhat soggy kimchi salad. Equally successful and largely similar to the pork medallions, the rustic cut beef tataki, slices of tenderloin seared to pink perfection, was paired with the same complement of onions and sauce.
Our enthusiastic and helpful waitress suggested we try the Zen Box short ribs. This proved to be a just-fine rendition of the Korean marinated and grilled bone-in pork called kalbi. It was a tad chewy and could have benefited from a touch more flavoring, but I’d order it again. I definitely found it preferable to the touted spareribs and daikon, which amounted to fall-off-the-bone pork and a couple of daikon spuds simmered in a bland miso sauce.
A wild-card choice that was quite a pleasant surprise was shumai tempura—lightly battered and deep-fried dim sum dumplings. Sided with the ponzu, it was enjoyably light and crunchy.
And last but not least, there’s the izakaya standard called chicken kara age. These pop-in-your-mouth pieces of marinated and deep-fried morsels of chicken put Chicken McNuggets to shame. The enjoyment is heightened by the excellent homemade kamikaze sauce, a soy-based condiment we found ourselves using with several of our selections.
The most frequent criticism we had of the food was the lack of adequate seasoning. Whether it was the Zen Box macaroni potato salad, the otherwise well prepared age gyoza, or the mussels steeped in a sake-butter-garlic broth, there simply wasn’t enough flavor to carry the day.
In the case of the crab and avocado salad and the crab croquettes, the downfall was not only the bland character of both, but also the watery, diminished quality of what is likely frozen shellfish.
In assessing a place of this kind, it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t meant to be gourmet bar food. Rather, it’s Asian bar food, and Zen Box deserves a lot of credit for its effort to introduce this style of dining to the Twin Cities. A bit of roughness around the edges isn’t as much a flaw as it is part of the character. If you are looking for an interesting and value-priced meal before a night at the theater or other diversion, Zen Box Izakaya should be on your short list. 602 Washington Ave. S., Mpls., 612-332-3936, zenboxizakaya.com