PinKU, a fast-casual Japanese street food concept, is planting roots in the Nicollet Island-East Bank neighborhood with what could be the first of many restaurants around the country.
Co-founders Xiaoteng “X” Huang and John Sugimura are planning to open the tiny “fine-casual” Japanese restaurant this spring in the former Primrose Park space at 20 University Ave. NE. The two say that PinKU will serve cheap and quick, yet meticulously prepared Japanese street food much like the small shops lining the streets of Osaka or Kyoto.
They say they’re starting the chain because of what they see as a lack of fairly priced, everyday restaurants serving authentic Japanese dishes that exist somewhere between fussy establishments and supermarket sushi.
“I’d much rather have food with an integrity that might sacrifice a little bit of quality than feel like I’ve been exploited,” Sugimura said. “We’re not trying to make it all fancy. What we’re trying to make it is all real.”
On the business side is Huang, a Marshall, Minn. native who previously worked at huge companies like Goldman Sachs, IBM and Target before giving up the high-paying career to join the kitchens of fast-casual chains like Chipotle and Noodles & Company. Growing up in rural Minnesota, Huang and his parents would drive a few hours to Minneapolis just to find authentic ethnic food — it’s this problem that PinKU could solve as it expands.
“I’ve always dreamed about becoming an entrepreneur and starting my own company. This is my American dream,” he said. “It’s not about money. It’s about leaving a legacy.”
On the cooking side is Sugimura, a Japanese-raised, Minnesota-born private chef. Sugimura, a second-generation sushi chef, learned his skills at the Sushi Institute of America and then under master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi in his California restaurants.
A couple years ago, the two met at a sushi class in Stillwater that Sugimura taught and they’ve been working together ever since.
Their flagship restaurant will be a tiny 960 square feet, which is exactly what they were looking for. The former apparel store space will have 36 seats and a kitchen with no backroom or storage, forcing them to buy fresh.
In a small prep and kitchen area, Sugimura and his staff will be behind the counter cooking a simple 10-item menu, which he’s already cooked in some form for thousands of people in recent years.
“We want to keep it simple, keep it lean. We had a food truck mentality,” Huang said. “It’s about stripping away all the pretense, all the unnecessary stuff. We want to be able to focus our resources on the food. That’s why we only have 10 items, so we can do those 10 items better than anybody that we know.”
The items, which will cost between $4-$7 (with no tipping), include ramen, fish and seafood dishes that can be made as sushi rolls or bowls. PinKU will also have a breakfast item based on a traditional Japanese breakfast, likely a bowl with grilled salmon, a poached egg and pickled vegetables.
PinKU will serve breakfast, lunch, dinner and a simplified late-night menu.
The drink menu features several wines and sakes, including a unique Banzai Bunny sparkling sake and, of course, the 22-ounce cans of Sapporo, a cheaper Japanese beer.
“We call it ‘fine casual,’” Huang said. “We’re doing the fast-casual operation in terms of speed, accessibility and price, but we’re doing a fine dining-quality of food.”
PinKU, the Japanese word for pink, refers to the restaurant’s logo, based on a mural that Sugimura and an illustrator designed. The heavily stylized fish depicts Sugimura’s family crest, 17th-century kimono fabrics and cherry blossoms for the trees shared between Tokyo and Washington D.C. The fish will grace the space’s long wall close to diners.
“We just wanted to create an image that told a story,” he said.
The two are already in talks about the next locations, including co-locating in art galleries, hotels and the airport. Huang said it will be easier to replicate their small restaurant in other locations.
“We don’t want to become bigger, more full service. If anything we want to go smaller,” Sugimura said. “This is not supposed to be the biggest; this is supposed to be the best.”
PinKU Japanese Street Food is projected to open by June 1 at 20 University Ave. NE.
A concept of PinKU. Submitted photos
Here is PinKU’s 10-item menu:
YELLOWTAIL WITH CRISPY ONIONS
Chilled-sliced Japanese yellowtail with crispy onions and citrus soy sauce
CREAMY SHRIMP WITH VEGETABLES
Jumbo-crispy shrimp with spicy mayo and radish noodles
CREAMY SHRIMP WITH RICE
Jumbo-crispy shrimp with spicy mayo, radish, and seasoned rice
SEARED SALMON WITH RICE CAKE
Seasoned-seared Atlantic salmon with seasoned rice cake, freshly brewed soy sauce, and micro greens
SEARED SALMON WITH RICE
Seasoned-seared Atlantic salmon with seasoned rice, freshly brewed soy sauce, avocado, and radish
SALMON FAT ROLL
Chilled-seasoned Atlantic salmon with seasoned rice, leaf lettuce, avocado, pickled burdock root, and radish sprouts
SPICY TUNA WITH CRISPY RICE
Chilled-spicy Hawaiian tuna with spicy mayo, hot crispy rice cake, and Jalapeño
SPICY TUNA FAT ROLL
Chilled-spicy Hawaiian tuna with spicy mayo, seasoned rice, leaf lettuce, avocado, pickled burdock root, and radish sprouts
Steamed-fried pork dumplings with ginger garlic sauce
Steamed-fried noodles with crispy pork, seasoned egg, cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, and green onions