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."

That's how it is in the horizontal city: You get your neighborhood at home, and a whole new neighborhood at work, with a whole new set of neighbors. And some of them might even have Japanese restaurants. (Zen Box Japanese Eatery, 6 Quebec Building, Skyway Level, 607 Marquette Ave., Minneapolis, 612.341.3313; www.zen-box.com.)

 

ZELINO

Zelino is the brassy, classy backdoor to-go counter where you can get treats prepared in the kitchen of Zelo, under supervision of chef Jason Gibbons. Why should you care? Because I have been eating like a queen from this little back door, and you could be dining like royalty on the go, too. First, let me draw your attention to the phenomenal lasagna salsicca: Here, for $6.95, you get a vast brick of hot lasagna in which layers of chewy homemade pasta are sweetened with light, lovely ricotta, enrobed with scarlet rivers of lush, gorgeously concentrated red sauce, the kind that only comes from long cooking over low heat with good olive oil, and first-rate bits of sausage and meat, the immensity of it all crowned with creamy pillows of mozzarella. Mamma mia, that's a lasagna! Each bite is so rich, each square inch is so filling, each separate part (the noodles, the sauce, the cheese) so well thought through I just about wept happy Italian tears. I can't think of a better lasagna in the state.

The soups at Zelino are also excellent: The lovely tomato basil is as red as a rose, as zippy as a sports car, and as thick as a phone book--but far more pleasant on the tongue. The chicken fennel is chockablock with fresh vegetables and has more real chicken in it than a 12-inch sub from one of those corporate sandwich chains. (Soups cost $3.95 a pint, and come with a chunk of ciabatta, that airy, toasty bread Zelo makes fresh every day.) Every salad I tried, from lemony couscous to balsamic-touched grilled vegetable to bold Caesar, was good enough not just to eat, but to try to pass off at the next potluck as your own. (Oh, that Caesar: It came covered with golden strips of real parmigiano reggiano, it was presented with a bag of toasty, good olive oil-touched croutons, and even boasted a thick dressing with just enough garlic and anchovy to bring a smile to a restaurant critic's lips: They didn't dumb it down!)

Aside from the panini, which are entirely lackluster once they get cold, I have to confess I was fairly blown away by the excellence of Zelino. My only real problem is that they close at 2:00 p.m. Imagine the domestic harmony that would break out in Minnesota if folks were commonly bringing home lasagna, soup, and salad such as this! (Zelino, Medical Arts Building, Ground Floor, 831 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis; 612.333.7000.)

 

GOOD TO GO

Atlas has long been Minneapolis's premier Persian restaurant, and, till lately, that information and a buck seventy-five would get you on a city bus at rush hour. That was then. Nowadays, you can use that info to understand why it is that some of the best sandwiches in the history of the Minneapolis skyways exist at all.

See, there's a Persian tradition which involves mincing meat, blending it with herbs and spices, molding it on steel skewers, and char-grilling it until it is both roasty and delicate--a kabob. Well, calling these resulting jewels kabobs seems ridiculously inadequate but, you know, that's the word we have. But if we all keep in mind that a chef of great skill in this tradition can make a kabob as ethereal as lace.... Anyhoo, the chefs at Minneapolis's Atlas make all kinds of kabobs from minced meats and spices, like chicken and saffron, or lamb and herb, and char-grill them on steel skewers. Then they slip them off the skewers and carry them upstairs to the Good to Go skyway sandwich shop, where they are held, warm, in steam pans, to await your lunching pleasure.

When you order one of these "fire-roasted wraps," your server will take a flatbread, squirt a little sumac aioli on it, sprinkle on a handful of fresh-chopped basil, parsley, and cilantro, and add your choice of basmati rice, cucumber spears, tomatoes, diced red onion, minced jalapeños, and long leaves of romaine lettuce. Then he or she will finish the composition with a sirloin, chicken, lamb, or pork kabob, roll the whole thing up and voilà! Best Persian restaurant in the city quality, plain old skyway prices: $3.75 for a small, $5.50 for a large.

The chicken kabob, or wrap, or whatever you want to call it, pairs delicate and mild saffron minced chicken with the bright, herbal salad of accompaniments to create a wrap that is zingy and light. The deep and gamy lamb version is like a gyro run through the Canyon Ranch spa, made healthy and wonderful. I also wholeheartedly recommend Good to Go's first-rate Greek salad, full of kalamata olives, perky feta cheese, and all the good stuff, for $3.95.

I talked to Good to Go and Atlas co-owner Hadi Anbar on the phone for this story, and he was very concerned lest I pigeonhole Good to Go as a Persian or Middle Eastern place. "We don't want to give people the wrong idea that it's a Persian restaurant," he told me. "In the Skyway we have to cater to all kinds of different people, that's why we also serve turkey club sandwiches, roast beef sandwiches, and such things. In fact, we are planning on expanding this idea, perhaps in another six months or nine months, if we can perfect the idea."

As far as I can tell, the idea is just about perfect as is. At least, food-wise, it looks like it's mainly the marketing that needs a little tweaking. Heaven knows, I understand the danger of labeling something "ethnic" in a beer-cheese-soup world, but I think the Good to Go folks should be far more worried that the spot gets pigeonholed as a wrap restaurant, which, by my count, became tragically unhip at least two years ago. (In fact, I walked past Good to Go a few times fearing it was the sort of place that served pressed chicken breast, Thai peanut sauce, and bean sprouts rolled up in a sun-dried tomato tortilla.) I wonder if they could rename the place Sumac Mediterranean Grill and become billionaires on the Chipotle model? (Good To Go has two locations: the first is on the Pillsbury Center Skyway Level, at 200 South Sixth St., Minneapolis, 612.341.4600; the second is on the Towle Building Skyway Level, 330 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.338.8400; www.urgoodtogo.com.)

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