Zen Box Izakaya hones in on Japanese pub grub

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

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

The Twin Cities long ago got the memo that Japanese food isn't just about sushi and sashimi.

We have Tanpopo, a relaxing and refreshing temple to the holy chewy noodle, in Lowertown. We've got 100 percent authentic teishoku meals (think of them as the Japanese prix fixe) at Sakura. And we've got the little jewel box Obento-ya serving just-right bento meals.

The scene, you could say, has breadth if not depth. And then comes a sudden mini-explosion in an unexpected category: the Japanese gastropub. Moto-i started it all, three years ago, with its onsite sake brewery. (Have you heard it's the only one outside Japan? I have, every single time Moto-i's name is invoked.) They had the small-plates, big-flavor concept to themselves for a while. Then Masu opened last spring, bringing a livelier, louder, younger bar atmosphere and a menu that strays pretty far from tradition. (Though, who knows, maybe they'd like bacon-wrapped tomato skewers and tuna jerky served over tiny, smoking stoves in Tokyo.)

But there's room, I believe, to bring both a little more breadth and a little more depth to Japanese food in the Twin Cities. Something a little warmer, a little more casual, something that's not about innovation but about Japanese classics. Make room for Zen Box Izakaya.

Zen Box has been keeping downtown Minneapolis office workers full and happy for years, with takeout boxes of sticky rice, gyoza, grilled meats, and other simple things, in their tiny skyway location. Owners John Ng and Lina Goh, who are transplants from San Francisco, had built up enough of a following that when news broke this spring that they had found a location on the east end of Washington, near the Guthrie, it sent little ripples of excitement through the gyoza-loving community. There aren't many skyway holes-in-the-wall that could pull off that kind of expansion or get that many people to care about it.

And expand they did. The new space isn't huge—bigger and brighter than Moto-i, smaller and more intimate than Masu—but the menu is substantial, with close to 100 items. Diners get a chipper reminder that everything except the ramen is meant for sharing, and there's no such thing as a starter or a main. Maybe you've tried that tack before elsewhere—ordering a few small plates to share and planning to order more as the mood strikes—only to have your waiter disappear for half an hour before inquiring if you'd like the check. Not here.

From the time they greet you with a cheery "Irrasaimase!" ("Welcome!"—sometimes chanted in spooky unison) to the time you finally push aside the last plate, the staff at Zen Box seem to know exactly when you might like, say, another round of gyoza, a few more crispy, salty soba sticks, or just a little more room on the table. Goh herself is an active presence in the dining room, keeping everyone on track.

Izakaya means "sake house" or "pub" in Japanese, and the menu Goh and Ng have put together hews pretty close to the classics, with the addition of some noodle and ramen dishes and even a curry, and a strong emphasis on their own version of comfort food. There's a selection of fried things (agemono) like dumplings, croquettes, and crispy popcorn chicken; a list of grilled things (yakimono) like salmon, short ribs, and tofu; and a bunch of "izakaya classics" that don't fit in either category.

The menu standouts combine the best attributes of drinking food—spicy, salty, crunchy, and packed with flavor—while still being substantial enough to build a meal around. The Buta Kimchi tops this list. Thick, chewy, fatty slices of pork belly are sautéed and smothered with kimchi. As fermented cabbage goes, it's on the mellow end of the spectrum, but still tangy and deep.

Another pork belly dish, the Chashu Yaki, also sent chopsticks flying and fighting over the last bit. Rings of pork belly, almost devoid of fat, take a light hit of citrusy ponzu sauce, contrasting with a smoky charred note from the grill. And the flavor went all the way down through the bed of grilled sweet onions, which got snatched up, too.

Comfort food meets bar food—and fantastic things happen—in a plate of tebasaki. Tender, meaty chicken wings with a decadently fatty layer of skin are coated in flavorful sea salt and just enough pepper. If a Buffalo wing went to finishing school to learn a little class, it might come out like these simple, subtle, and refined wings.

Two more yakimono tempted us to order another round: Yaki Tofu is a skewer of grilled tofu cubes with a smoky, thick crust and a creamy-chewy center, with just enough sweet teriyaki glaze. And the salmon teriyaki was cooked until the second it turned meltingly tender and no more. Grilling salmon is a pretty fundamental thing, but when fish comes to the table at just the right temperature and texture, you can be sure the kitchen and the wait staff have found their groove.

The ramen dishes—miso, soy, and kimchi, served with springy egg noodles, sliced pork belly, and a soft-boiled egg—are deeply mysterious and alluring. The broth is rich and chocolaty, with the charred flavor of deeply browned meats and vegetables, but without any tang. The kimchi ramen, a satisfying meal for a single diner that I predict will become Zen Box's claim to fame, is hot in a way that fills your head with warm thoughts and makes you focus on what you're eating, not in a way that blows steam out your ears.

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.

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.