Horizontal Hunger

Three of the best lunch options in the Minneapolis skyways prove you can get restaurant quality on the run

Downtown Minneapolis is two cities. There's the vertical one, full of jobs, ambition, meetings, manila folders, politics, commuting costs, and a fervent desire to quit or get promoted before that Judy woman makes her move. The vertical city is about money, on a macro scale: Decisions are made in increments of millions of dollars, and friendship is expressed through notarized contracts.

And then, then there is the horizontal city, my city. The city of lasagna, donuts, and coffee, coffee, coffee. The city where the bodies that carry the big brains around all day find their only pleasure. The city where bank presidents and mailroom sorters stand in the same lines at the pizza counter, where some of the most heavily considered decisions of the day unspool in increments of five and ten bucks, where friendship is expressed when two bento-box types find one another in a predominantly beer-cheese-soup office. The horizontal city: a city exactly as exciting, and exactly as banal, as the regular city, but where the language is food, and food's eternal lover, beverage.

The skyways! I spent a good two weeks in the skyways this January, searching for what's new and great. I forced myself to skip some of the most reliable reliables, like sandwich paradise the Brother's Deli, or soup legend the Lone Doughnut Café, simply to search for something new. I visited scrappy little underdog spots that dished up Italian subs that tasted as if they had been fashioned from boiled tracksuits. I swooped into snazzy new restaurants and had niftily packaged burgers that tasted like hammered grease, with mustard. I tried eager-to-please immigrant grab-and-gos that were so close to making the cut that I stayed up nights, tossing and turning. I tried strange smoothie concepts, and came to feel haunted, truly haunted, by the enormous jeans of Jared, which seem to live as thought bubbles above the head of every person on line before every Subway sandwich joint.

Zen revelation: Husband and wife team Lina Goh and John Ng serve healthy, authentic Japanese food--in the skyway
Allen Beaulieu
Zen revelation: Husband and wife team Lina Goh and John Ng serve healthy, authentic Japanese food--in the skyway

(I was, incidentally, also in the skyways the week the Baja del Sol opened in City Center, and felt like some kind of viral marketing researcher, as I overheard excited chatter about it as far north as Washington, and as far south as the Target store.)

In the end, I settled on the three following places as worth your attention. At each of them the food was excellent, the folks behind the counters were very nice, and each one of them stands a good chance of elevating a regular old Wednesday lunch into a true pleasure.

 

ZEN BOX

How far has news of general boredom with skyway food traveled? All the way to San Francisco, at least. Believe it or not, husband and wife team Lina Goh and John Ng moved here all the way from that land of fog and gold exclusively to open a Japanese takeout in the skyways. The couple had a friend who was living in Minneapolis, exporting Midwestern soybeans to Japan, and after visiting one long weekend they became convinced that there was gold in them thar skyways.

So they just packed up and moved here, and opened Zen Box, a wee green tea-colored restaurant across the skyway from the Wells Fargo building. Zen Box specializes in what could basically be called bento boxes in a Styrofoam takeout container. For $4.99, for instance, you can get a hot, unfussy little three-course meal such as the chicken teriyaki one: a couple of crispy little chicken gyoza dumplings topped with a soy and sweet ginger "kamikaze" sauce, a shredded carrot and cabbage salad topped with a golden ginger dressing, a big bed of good Japanese hot rice topped with a ladle of char-grilled, marinated chicken teriyaki, and even a fountain drink.

My favorite Zen Box meal is the sliced short ribs (which cost $6.99 as part of a whole meal bonanza). This dish bears a family resemblance to Korean kalbi. To make it, Goh and Ng slice beef short ribs almost paper thin, marinate these slices overnight in a sweet and spicy concoction based on mirin rice wine, and grill them before service on a big professional char grill. What results is sweet, salty, roasty wafers of beef that taste like some blessed meeting point between bacon and steak. (Please know that these things are so good they sell out nearly every day: I planned an entire day around getting there one morning at 11:00 to make sure I got an order.)

Goh and Ng also sell light, healthy meals: For the past few months they've been selling salmon onigiri, triangular cakes of rice and cooked salmon that are the ultimate Japanese food to eat on the run ($1.79; to eat it, hold your onigiri inside the paper of seaweed that comes with it). Supplement your onigiri with a little container of edamame ($1.59), a light and fresh white miso soup with mushrooms ($1.49), a giant portion of the cabbage salad ($2.09), or one of the little packs of simple sushi ($1.59) that the Zen Box crew make every day, and you'll be eating as simply, and authentically, Japanese as you can in the Twin Cities.

"Before we moved here, everyone warned us about the weather," Linda Goh told me when I talked to her on the phone for this story. "So this is the first real winter for us. But at least now we can appreciate the real seasons. In San Francisco it's foggy and really cold, you get the same old weather every day. But here, when it gets so cold, everybody has to stick together. We have some customers who come in every day, get the same thing every day; they fill up four [frequent diner] cards on the same thing every day. So I know they are happy to see us every day, and we are happy to see them, every day."

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