Zen Box Izakaya hones in on Japanese pub grub

Washington Avenue location expands Zen beyond the skyway

If you're coming to Zen Box more to drink than to eat, look no further than the agemono. One or two of these salty, crunchy snacks will keep you reaching for more beer all evening. The Kani Korokke, while kind of hard to share with your drinking buddies, is among the best on the fried list. It's a crab cake that wouldn't be entirely unfamiliar to Marylanders, except that it's larger than a hockey puck. The thick crust supports a surprisingly creamy middle, almost more mayonnaise than crab, and it comes with a very mild mayonnaise dip on the side.

In Japan, a glass of beer practically screams for a bowl of kara-age, little popcorn-shaped nuggets of chicken or calamari with more crust than chicken, deeply salty, and about as friendly and childlike as a tater tot. In fact, if chicken kara-age were to supplant tots as the next ironic crazy, I would be totally down with that. Add a plate of gyoza and you have a really nice set of snacks to accompany your drinks. It's hard to elevate gyoza—a fairly straightforward fried dumpling—to anything beyond "Hey, pretty good," but it is easy to mess them up, so I give Zen Box credit for an even, crispy crust and perfectly good chicken and vegetarian fillings.

While ramen, chicken wings, and crunchy fried things are easy sells as comfort food, other dishes are very clear reminders that comfort is all about what you grew up with. Let's take sticky, stringy, ever-so-slightly stinky natto—fermented soybeans. The beans themselves are still whole and brown with just a little bite to them and taste far less "fermented" than you might expect, but they are held together with a goo that is—well, let's just say there's no easy way to write about natto without a snot reference. To some Japanese people, this stuff is as comforting as a bowl of Rice Krispies and cold milk. Roll it in an omelet—ours would have made Julia Child proud—and you have the comfort equivalent of "this complete breakfast." So, unfamiliar, yes, but the dire warning on the menu—"Only for the brave!"—is really a bit much. At our table, the chopsticks may have hovered hesitantly over the natto omelet for a second or two, but the plate was soon empty.

Zen Box Izakaya's bar food, like grilled Yaki Tofu, can double as full meals
Sasha Landskov
Zen Box Izakaya's bar food, like grilled Yaki Tofu, can double as full meals

Location Info


Zen Box Izakaya

602 Washington Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55455

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: University


Zen Box Izakaya
602 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis
items $3.50-$12

Cold tofu is also low on the comfort scale for Western palates. Hiyayakko, chilled tofu sprinkled generously with flakes of dried tuna, is an izakaya classic. Chilling the tofu to almost ice-cold adds a subtle layer of unexpected flavor and texture. But it was hard not to wish for a little more seasoning. The same was true of the tofu salad, with cold—but not chilled—tofu. Once more flavorful dishes arrived, both of these were forgotten.

Only one dish falls truly flat: The Mussel Butter Sakamushi got pushed aside after a few game attempts to identify a niggling off flavor. Though the menu hyped this as a "Must Try!" I'm thinking sake and butter just don't get along, and those poor mussels—big, chewy fresh ones that deserved better—were the worse for it.

What to drink with all that? In addition to a brief but well-chosen sake menu, Zen Box has both Japanese beers—Hitachino and Asahi in addition to the more familiar Sapporo and Kirin—and local beers on tap. But the biggest surprises came in a can and in a 22-ounce bottle. Tokyo Black—denser and sweeter than Guinness and about as far from a Sapporo as can be—will change anyone's mind about Japanese drinking preferences. And Crispin Cider's unfiltered Cho-tokkyu apple cider, brewed with sake yeast, combines the best of East and Midwest.

All the same, though its name may mean "pub," I don't think Zen Box Izakaya will ever be known primarily as a place to drink. The layout is definitely more conducive to dining than drinking, and the food is just too good. Nobody but nobody will miss the sushi.

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