Top 10 Japanese restaurants in the Twin Cities
Yumminess in a box
One hears "Japanese food" and immediately images of raw fish clinging delicately to pillows of plump and sticky balls of rice come to mind. But believe it or not, the good people of Japan do eat more than sushi and edamame. From gyoza dumplings to soba noodle dishes in fragrant miso broths to the flash and dazzle of the teppanyaki grill, this country's cuisine is as rich and varied as any other. Here are 10 of our top picks for places to explore all it has to offer here in the Twin Cities. Do itashimashite (you're welcome).
10. Saji Ya Is there anywhere better to dine with boys of a certain age than at a teppanyaki table? Knives flash, smoke wafts, meats sizzle, knives flash some more--it's as gratifying as an Evel Knievel jump. Saji-Ya is a fine place for teppanyaki, not least because of the lively bar and the fact that you can get sushi delivered right to your tables, which are elevated above the rest of the restaurant. The attractive, snaking sushi bar is another fine place to while away the evening, and the drinks are well thought out and numerous, with three dozen varieties of beer, a decent selection of single-malt and blended Scotches, and a few nicely chosen premium sakes. The pleasant patio, chilled sushi, and Grand Avenue location make Saji-ya the perfect place to spend a balmy evening in St. Paul, and the blazing grills make for a cozy retreat during colder weather. (695 Grand Avenue, St. Paul; 651.292.0444 Saji Ya's website)
9. Tanpopo Noodle Shop This intimate St. Paul nook has been providing bowls of steaming noodles and trays of neatly arranged teishoku for more than 10 years. Often described as a "set-meal," teishoku consists of a main dish accompanied by rice, miso soup, and another plate or two of nibbles. Order the chicken karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken) teishoku at Tanpopo and you'll receive a tray full of plates. There's the chicken--chunks of juicy thigh meat lightly battered and fried, dressed with grated daikon and sweet, vinegary soy sauce with a wedge of lemon; one bowl of rice and another of miso soup with tofu and wakame seaweed; and a salad of baby greens with ginger dressing and a darling plate of crunchy pickles. Is anything more comforting than a warm bowl of Japanese noodle soup? Tanpopo's soba and udon noodles are steeped in an authentic kelp- and bonito-based broth. Homemade desserts like sweet potato crème brûlée and persimmon tart reflect the restaurant's commitment to healthy, affordable, seasonal, and tasty food. (308 E. Prince St., St. Paul; 651.209.6527 Tanpopo Noodle Shop's website)
8. Moto-i This sleek, dark Lyn-Lake izakaya-style eatery and watering hole has deep, cozy booths and Japanese soap operas playing on the TVs. (You could almost imagine rubbing elbows--or trading shots--with a crew of Nintendo employees celebrating the success of the Wii.) It also boasts one of the best rooftop patios in Minneapolis. Most significantly, Moto-i is thought to be the first sake brewpub outside of Japan. Blake Richardson, owner of the Herkimer, applied his beer-making experience to rice wine, serving up several varieties of premium, unpasteurized, draft sake. Moto-i serves a menu of small plates, among the best being Japan's version of chicken nuggets, the batter-fried karaage, the roasted peanuts seasoned with Thai chiles and kaffir-lime leaf, and the lotus chips, which look as elegant as fried lace doilies and arrive tucked into a cone made from Japanese newspaper. (2940 Lyndale Ave S., Minneapolis; 612.821.6262 Moto-i's website)
7. Obento-ya Japanese Bistro The beauty of this cozy Japanese bistro near Dinkytown is that its menu is far broader than visitors might expect. Its offerings of robata--delicate skewers of meat or vegetarian fare prepared over an indoor charcoal grill--are light, cheap, novel, palate-expanding, and absolutely delightful. Negima skewers (chicken breast and scallions with a yakitori sauce, $2.25) are as tender as the dickens and rich with a sweet and salty flavor. Tsukune (meatballs, $3) and quail egg and bacon skewers ($3.75) are both pleasingly fresh approaches to the small-plate concept. The modularity and variety of items on Obento-ya's menu allows a veritable symphony of experiences to please any taste, from a friend in town from Manhattan to your mother-in-law from Bismarck. Obento-ya isn't the priciest or fanciest Japanese place in the Cities. But it's got a crazy amount of moxie and creativity, and that goes a long way. (1510 Como Avenue SE, Minneapolis; 612.331.1432 Obento-ya's website)
6. Fuji Ya Fuji-Ya, which opened in 1959 and is credited as the Twin Cities' first Japanese restaurant, offers sushi so fresh you'd think you were in Japan (or at least Hawaii),. Hipsters flock to the Uptown location and willingly shed their Chuck Taylors and Frye boots as they enter one of its three private zashiki rooms to dine on sumashi (clear fish broth), kaiso (seaweed), and bulgogi (thinly sliced rib eye). Meanwhile, the downtown St. Paul venue proves that sashimi is the great equalizer--the pre-show choice of Ordway patrons and Wild fans alike. The happy hour is legitimately happy, running "late" until 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday in Minneapolis and Monday through Thursday in St. Paul, with discounts on beer, wine, and sushi, as well as daily sake and martini features. The bluefin tuna is sustainable, Godzilla movies play on the flat screen, and, most importantly, it's fun to say real fast--Fuji-Ya! (600 West Lake St., Minneapolis; 612.871.4055 465 Wabasha St. N., St. Paul; 651.310.0111 Fuji Ya's website)
5. Kikugawa Kikugawa remains unchallenged as the Cities' only fine-dining Japanese restaurant where the service and ambiance count as much as the food. With an extensive sake menu, atmospheric location featuring views of the Minneapolis skyline across the river, and authentic Japanese seating with inviting cushions and low tables, dining at Kikugawa is a unique, upscale experience. Warm hand towels are delivered to the table, and the sushi chefs are always happy to take customized requests. The menu features several sushi platter options, fashioned out of the freshest available slices of fish, vegetables, and roe, arrayed on seasoned rice and served with miso soup. Sukiyaki, that ethereal, simmered beef dish, is the best in town, and the eight-course kaiseki teishoku is a delicious way to ensure you won't need to eat again for a full 48 hours. (43 Main St. SE, Minneapolis; 612.378.3006 Kikugawa's website)
4. Sakura Sakura is the one Japanese restaurant you would want to have in your city if you could have only one Japanese restaurant: It does that much. Look inside the deep red walls on a typical night and you'll find legions of different customers. In one corner, Wild hockey fans seek the next spicy sushi sensation, daring the chefs to make them sweat. Near a front window, Japanese expats from local universities, 3M, and Unisys drink and snack till the wee hours. Elsewhere, graduate students take advantage of the thrifty yakizakana teishoku meals, the blue-plate specials, the meat-loaf-and-mashed-potatoes of everyday Japan. Vegetarians confer around the most reliable vegetable sushi in the state. Miyoko Omori, Sakura's owner, has been creating these layers of community for years now, and if you get a table near the window on a Sakura Saturday night, you might understand the brick-built weave of St. Paul in a way you never did before. (350 St. Peter St., St. Paul; 651.224.0185 Sakura's website)
3. Nami The elegant, soaring warehouse space feels more Miami than Minnesota, the throbbing late-night bar more Milan than Minnesota, and the low, low prices feel more Minnesota than we ever could have hoped for. Nami does well with all sorts of categories of food: It's a sweet spot for Japanese bar snacks and drinks; comfort foods like tonkatsu (a fried pork cutlet) and rice; a low-cal business lunch conveniently located halfway between the corporate towers of Nicollet and the art and ad-agency corrals of the Warehouse District; and even plenty of fear-free dishes like New York strip steak. The sushi is as good as any in town, but the restaurant really distinguishes itself with budget pricing, an amazing piece of "butterfish" (miso-marinated black cod), and ambiance that's chic and airy enough to support fancy dates, business lunches, and martini-soaked birthday parties. (251 First Ave N., Minneapolis; 612.333.1999 Nami's website)
2. Origami There's no more satisfying feeling than sitting at an Origami table while a server pours one of owner Kiminobu Ichikawa's favorite sakes, for he or she will pour until the glass overflows, the tradition for good luck. Said good luck comes fast and furious in the shape of feather-light tempura, zesty salads, and noodle dishes with all the subtlety of rustling leaves. The downtown Minneapolis location has been the leader in sushi excellence for two decades with its consistently fresh and extensive fish selections, expertly prepared rice, and high quality nori. Owner-chef "Ichi" (Kiminobu Ichikawa) has been keeping a watchful eye over the quality of ingredients since he opened the restaurant in 1991. He uses Tamaki Gold rice, with a sweet aroma and perfect stickiness, seasoned with a top-secret vinegar mixture. Bargain weekday noodle lunches and late-night celebrity sightings round out the package. (30 N. First St., Minneapolis; 612.333.8430 12305 Wayzata Blvd, Minnetonka; 952.746.3398 Origami's website)
1. Masu Sushi and Robata Tim McKee continues to conquer the Minneapolis restaurant scene even as he diversifies. Masu Sushi & Robata opened in northeast Minneapolis in 2011, and already it's hard to imagine a time when we couldn't play Pachinko at a moment's notice. From the gorgeously devourable sushi to the charred robata to the slurpable bowls of ramen (especially that Tonkatsu curry), Masu is the complete package. The ebi yakisoba (pan fried noodles with jumbo shrimp) is a warm and flavorful mix of perfectly browned noodles, generous hunks of succulent shrimp, large slices of crisp cabbage, and a rich swirl of Japanese mayo that adds a creamy note to the whole bowl. The new Mall of America location is just as good, with sushi so fresh and artful it's almost impossible to believe you're eating it in a mall, mere steps away from Panda Express. (330 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.332.6278 Mall of America, 344 South Avenue, Bloomington; 952.896.6278 Masu Sushi and Robata's website)
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.