Small but mighty PinKU brings “fine casual” Japanese street food to Northeast

A colorful 29-foot-long mural is the focal point of the dining room at PinKU.

A colorful 29-foot-long mural is the focal point of the dining room at PinKU.

John Sugimura and Xiaoteng Huang are just a week away from the opening of PinKU, their new restaurant across the street from Surdyk’s in northeast Minneapolis, yet they exhibit no signs of stress as they show off their almost-finished space. Curious passersby stop and peer through the window.

PinKU is possibly the smallest restaurant in town in terms of space, with around 1,000 square feet shared between the kitchen and the dining room. But Sugimura and Huang have big plans for their Japanese street food concept (they’re already talking to the Metropolitan Airports Commission about an outlet at MSP). They’ve even coined a term to describe what they’re doing: "fine casual."

What, you might ask, does that mean? Think of it as the love child of the fast casual service model, with orders placed at the counter, paired with food you’d expect to find at a much higher price point.

Dishes like jumbo crispy shrimp with radish noodles for $6.50 or a spicy tuna fat roll at $5.50. “We want to give people good food they can enjoy without having to balance their checkbooks to eat out,” says Sugimura. You can pair your meal with sake, wine, or beer.

The restaurant feels larger than its square footage, thanks to a smart layout, open kitchen, and the fact that virtually none of the space is used for storage. Unlike the room-size walk-in coolers found in most restaurants, here there is about as much refrigerator space as most people have in their home kitchen.

There’s also no space devoted to dry goods storage; everything is stocked in the “just-in-time” method used by manufacturing companies. Because of this setup, the food preparation process is totally transparent, notes Huang. Diners can see their food being prepared every step of the way, as all 32 seats in the dining room have full view of the gleaming, stainless steel kitchen.

The view from the open kitchen into the dining room.

The view from the open kitchen into the dining room.

The dining room is dominated by a 29-foot by 17-1/2-foot mural designed by owner Sugimura in collaboration with illustrator Jared Tuttle. Like all aspects of the restaurant, there is a story behind it. The patterns are based on 17th-century kimono fabrics., while the cherry blossoms commemorate the gift of cherry tree seedlings planted in Washington, D.C. from Lord Mayor Ozaki Yukio. Sugimura has supported the Ozaki Yukio Memorial Foundation, which promotes worldwide democracy, for more than a decade.

The walls are painted midnight blue, and are punctuated with wall sconces that resemble electric junction boxes. The color scheme and lighting choices are meant to evoke the experience of enjoying street food in the alleyways of Japan at night. "In Japan, you'd have 11 food carts in one alley," says Huang. "Here, we've moved them all inside."

The restaurant will open its doors to the public at 10 p.m. on June 17, and Huang and Sugimura are ready for the big day, pending a few final city inspections. They’re also totally comfortable with their small space and the way the restaurant turned out. “If we got a $100,000 infusion of cash today, I wouldn’t change a thing,” says Sugimura.


20 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis

Opening June 17, 10 p.m. - midnight