Get cheap and delicious Japanese street food at PinKU -- just don't call it sushi

Jumbo crispy shrimp with rice, seared salmon with rice cake, and spicy tuna fat roll

Jumbo crispy shrimp with rice, seared salmon with rice cake, and spicy tuna fat roll Alma Guzman

You know PinKU is different as soon as you walk in the door.

John Sugimura, tall, booming of voice, and ebullient of spirit, instantly fills up all 960 square feet of this northeast Minneapolis sushi joint. He comes out from behind the counter to greet you, to go over the menu, together, with you.

It’s just one of the many ways in which barriers fall away at this 32-seat game-changer.

PinKU means “pink” in Japanese, and it’s the only Japanese word you’ll find here. Sugimura knew that by including Japanese on the menu, he’d only be setting up more obstacles to understanding and appreciating the cuisine he loves.

“Let’s not talk about maguro. Let’s just talk about tuna,” he says. He’s hell bent on stripping away any pretense at PinKU, including the word “sushi,” which can carry too many connotations of expense, esoterica, and occasion. He calls this place “street,” and it’s as close as you’ll get around here to the street food of Japan.

“You shouldn’t have to balance your checkbook before going out to eat,” he adds. Affordability is one of the other imperatives of his first restaurant, which he co-owns with partner Xiaoteng Huang, who prefers to go by his nickname, “X.”

Seared salmon on rice and crispy pot stickers

Seared salmon on rice and crispy pot stickers Alma Guzman

The duo are of one mind when it comes to the restaurant’s concept, but even X was confused about the name. “Why are we calling it pink?” he asked Sugimura.

“If you start looking up ‘pink’ in Japanese, you start getting peace, democracy, less aggressiveness,” he responded. “PinKU is about human contact.”

This is a second act for Sugimura, who spent the majority of his adult life working in human services at Head Start and in politics under Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. He feels strongly about the restaurant being an extension of that human service.

Sugimura’s mother passed away “a long time ago” from cancer, and he knew he was going to do something really interesting with the money he received after her death. “Putting all my stuff in storage and travelling around Spain for three months, that’s just not me,” he said.

Instead, he did everything he could to educate himself about sushi, including graduating from the Sushi Institue of America. He was instructing his own culinary classes when he was approached by a student, X, who wanted to open a more approachable, affordable, friendly sushi restaurant. The two went on a research mission, and finding no other restaurants like the one they envisioned, they knew they had to do it.

So they did it.

After Sugimura’s big personality, the second thing you’ll notice is the menu. Listing about 10 items, plus the occasional special, it hangs on the wall in elegant, etched wooden planks. The partners knew that they wanted a “low technology” menu. Screens or anything high-tech would send the wrong message. “It would be too shiny. Too pretty,” says Sugimura. (Although the PinKU menu happens to be one of the prettiest anywhere, a work of art unto itself.)

Next, you’ll notice the price points, and you might wonder if someone has made a mistake when you see that everything hovers in the $4 to $8 range. But don’t bother asking: Those are the prices. Accessibility, remember?

In keeping with the other low barriers to entry, the menu here is easy to read, it’s easy to understand, and you know just what you’re getting. And what you’re getting is what the everyday consumer wants when they go for sushi in America: salmon, tuna, and shrimp.

Salmon is readily available in Minnesota in the winter. Why fight that? They serve three preparations of it: lightly seared on a crispy rice cake; lightly seared on rice with a little avocado, radish, and green onion, like a freewheeling salad; and lightly seared in the sushi roll you know and love.

Why three preparations, and why always lightly seared? In order to please all people, and because the texture is approachable. It makes people feel safe. Here there’s no “omakase” (chef’s choice) to contend with. You’re going to get exactly what you want, and nothing you don’t.

After your salmon, order some jumbo crispy shrimp with rice, served three to an order. They’ve been tenderized to reduce any rubberiness, they’ve been “washed” in rice wine vinegar and salt to disappear any whiff of fishiness, and they’ve been tossed in potato starch and fried, so they’re hot, crisp as chips, and gluten-free. They’re $6.50 an order, and people go nuts for them, sometimes getting three orders all to themselves, because at PinKU, you can do whatever you want.

“This is my tater tot hot dish,” says Sugimura. He serves it at home by the pound, family-style, which is how he knew it would be a surefire winner.

The spicy tuna on crispy rice is another dish he knows a thing or two about because he estimates that he served roughly 35,000 pieces before he ever threw open the doors to his restaurant. He’d work catering gigs and people would order 10 pieces each. He made them all night long because he likes giving people what they want.

These little addictions are the spicy tuna roll you know and love but so much better. First, he takes today’s fresh tuna (your spicy tuna roll is probably scrap that’s been collected over the past few days, sorry) and scrapes it, tartare style. Then, instead of the industry standard of Sriracha and Kewpie mayo for dressing, he uses 13 fresh ingredients, including sesame, chile, miso, and green onion, to give it complexity, zing, and depth.

Then, instead of a regular rice pad, his pads are crisped up, like fried rice. “I like fancy fried rice, I like takeout fried rice, I like bad fried rice,” says Sugimura. And now everybody gets to have his take on it.

So, if you’ve been paying attention, you can have an order of that shrimp, an order of this tuna, and salmon your way, and you’re only up to a grand total of about $18. Why not order some crispy pot stickers, easily some of the best in town, seared so hard on one side they crunch like autumn leaves? A dozen goes for $9, so now you’re sharing with your companions, and not jealously guarding your plate like it’s piled with fine jewels. You’ve still barely broken $30.

The fact that your order arrives in minutes, on a gleaming silver set-up that’s one part bento box and one part cafeteria tray, only punctuates the egalitarian message. What could be more approachable than a cafeteria tray?

If all of this sounds a little too Americanized, make no mistake. Sugimura identifies first and foremost as a Japanese man, and he just returned from a tour of Kyoto and Tokyo, where he went in part to check himself. He returned fortified.

“At no time was there any confusion about my blurring lines of integrity. Would my grandmother be proud? Absolutely. Absolutely,” he says.

PinKU is Japanese, it’s American, it’s a place of common ground. Go, and let Sugimura walk around the counter to say, “Arigatou gozaimasu!”

They’re likely the only Japanese words you’ll hear at PinKU.

In short, they mean: “Thank you, very much, for coming.”

Check out more photos from PinKU here.

20 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis