Although it didn’t start as a food truck, a meals-on-wheels beginning is a likely origin story for PinKU Japanese Street Food.
It’s not so far off the mark, since chef/co-owner John Sugimura did fall under the spell of the food cart operators who make the gigantic Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan, his Happiest Place on Earth. After years of studiously building a devoted Twin Cities clientele as a private chef, Sugimura teamed up with business partner Xiaoteng Huang to bring those cherished Nishiki memories to a wider audience.
In June, they christened a 30-seat space in northeast Minneapolis to showcase Sugimura’s most crowd-pleasing recipes. Their focus is admirably disciplined: just a few seafood basics, sizzling gyoza and rice, at crowd-pleasing prices. That’s it.
What a brilliant idea.
My first tip: When that rice is labeled “crispy,” go for it. Rice is seasoned with mirin, sugar and salt, molded into cakes and grilled in a bit of butter. After getting dunked in soy sauce, the cakes are grilled a second time, and that’s where the irresistible hot-crispy-salty caramelization (a recurring leitmotif) comes into play.
Those in search of offbeat selections from the sea should look elsewhere. Familiar and approachable are the operative words. Salmon, richly fatty, is expertly seared and paired with that divine rice cake, although it’s also a centerpiece of a loosely coiled roll. Ditto firm, succulent, sushi-grade tuna.
The yellowfin also goes the raw route — cool, elegantly sliced and artfully finished with a flurry of gently crispy onions. It’s also channeled into a flagrantly appealing poke. Sugimura treats it almost like a salad, tossing tiny snips of that plush fish with flashes of sesame oil, chile oil and rice wine vinegar — enhancing rather than infusing the fish with those bold flavors — and then adding creamy avocado and crunchy radish for plays on texture. It’s become a favorite way of mine to part with $8.
Next tip: Don’t ignore the shrimp, the menu’s top seller. Many unseen steps go into its perfection. Plus-size, but not Godzilla-like, they’re given a quick toss in rice wine vinegar and salt (“To freshen them up, to de-scum them,” said Sugimura), smacked with a rubber mallet (“So you don’t get that rigid shrimp cocktail feeling in your mouth,” he added), then seasoned with a thin coating of pepper, potato starch and spiced-up mayonnaise before hitting the deep fryer’s canola oil.
Rather than being obscured by ponderous breading, the shrimp’s inherent snappiness and juiciness land in the front-and-center spot. The spicy kick is an added benefit. Would that all deep-fried shrimp were handled with such care.
Potstickers are sold in servings of four ($4), eight ($7) and 12 ($9), and here’s tip No. 3: Always order more than initial instincts might suggest. They’re that good, filled with a mix of like-minded flavors: ground pork, shredded cabbage, ginger and sesame oil, with garlic chives contributing a final punch. Like every other menu item, they’re composed daily, and the effort shows.
Once steamed, the delicate wrappers are taken to a delectable, sizzingly brown crispiness in a hot pan, and that porky center radiates tons more personality than the vast majority of lame, factory-assembled potstickers that are sadly the norm.
Knock them back with the bar’s small assortment of mainstream Japanese beers (the sole American option, Coors Light, feels like a missed opportunity when there are a dozen-plus craft breweries within a few miles of the restaurant). And don’t overlook the chile oil-fueled soy-mirin dipping sauce.
Other beverage options are as limited as the rest of the menu, but wisely chosen, just a handful of basic by-the-glass wines and sake ($4 to $7), and a fruity sake-champagne cocktail ($6).
PinKU and vegetarians don’t necessarily mix. After ordering a daily special — a pancake filled with crunchy root veggies, the only available food-without-a-face item — I found myself absent-mindedly nibbling at it while gazing longingly at my friend’s seared salmon with crispy rice.
True to Sugimura’s recollections, the long, narrow space mimics food-vendor-filled Japanese alleys. There’s no walk-in freezer, or really much storage of any kind; just about every ingredient that’s served that day is delivered that day, and prepared in the wide-open, watch-them work environment, sending the “fresh” message loud and clear.
The kitchen’s gleaming stainless steel is nearly as much art installation as Sugimura’s actual handiwork: imagery of classic kimono patterns on vinyl black-and-white tiles, a graphic representation of a fish that borrows characteristics from many species, and even the handsome, wall-mounted wooden menu.
Service is informative, fast and friendly. A word of advice: Don’t expect to fill up on a single dish; PinKU’s portions reside in the “small plate” universe, but the generally $6-ish prices do, too.
Here’s a measure of the hit that Sugimura and Huang have on their hands: They’re hoping to add a PinKU (Japanese, for “pink”) to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Travelers, rejoice.
PinKU Japanese Street Food, 20 University Av. NE., Mpls., 612-584-3167, pinkujapanese.com. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. daily.
An L.A. import
A few blocks away, another quick-service operation also landed this summer, specializing in street fare from a different corner of the globe.
At Spitz, it’s all about wraps, focaccia sandwiches, salads and platters. Each is composed from a list of mix-and-match ingredients, the centerpiece of which is thin-shaved, heartily seasoned, spit-roasted lamb/beef kebab. Others include a decent chicken option as well as a crowd-pleasing falafel.
What’s jumps out — besides the generous portions — is the emphasis on not-shy flavors, from the intensely garlicky hummus to the vibrant tzatziki sauce. Vegetables are produce-section fresh and plentiful; vegetarians and vegans aren’t tolerated, they’re welcomed.
Less impressive is whatever is pulled from the deep fryer. The bar covers these inadequacies by tapping craft beers from a dozen local breweries and mixing up four lively, colorful sangrias.
Weekend brunch should materialize soon — nothing too complicated, mainly adding eggs (and cheese) to regular menu items.
The smile at the counter is genuine, although the kitchen’s performance tended toward spotty; every visit was blemished by some kind of order screw-up. The easygoing (if bare-bones) setting has a let’s-spin-some-records vibe, right down to the obligatory Prince tribute. The moderate prices — nothing exceeds $12 — are a major plus.
Family ties are a reason why this sharp 10-year-old Southern California mini-chain has landed in Minnesota: Franchise owner Chris Law is co-founder Robert Wickland’s brother-in-law.
This may be Law’s first Spitz outlet, but it’s hard to imagine it’ll be his last.
518 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-584-4922, spitzmn.com. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757 • @RickNelsonStrib