Photo by Eric Best

PinKU chef serves Japanese fare with a bit of personal history

Updated: September 5, 2017 - 4:41 pm

John Sugimura discusses PinKU’s community, expansion opportunities

When John Sugimura sits down at a restaurant in the Nicollet Island-East Bank neighborhood, someone is bound to come up and say hello.

The chef and co-owner of PinKU recently celebrated the Japanese street food restaurant’s first anniversary, and in that time Sugimura said he’s become even more entrenched in the community. It sometimes feels like it’s been much longer than a year since PinKU opened, he said.

“The relationship with the customer is really in line with Northeast, because people that shop Northeast have been going to all these businesses for years, so you swear I’ve been on the block for even five years,” he said.

Sugimura. Photo by Asha Belk
Sugimura. Photo by Asha Belk

As residents embrace PinKU, so too has Sugimura — once a resident himself — embraced the neighborhood.

The “fine-casual” restaurant is no stranger to personal art. Beyond flowers and kimono fabric designs, the restaurant’s logo, a 29-foot mural of a fish, features Sugimura’s family crest. The latest art installation at the University Avenue restaurant delves deeper into his personal story to honor a difficult part of his family’s history.

Sugimura, a Minnesota native, recently installed Japanese cherry blossoms outside the restaurant. The yellow decals are simple on their own, but as symbols for Japanese Americans like Sugimura, they are images of pride, he said.

“It helps tell that story of the love of Japanese Americans for their culture and history,” he said.

The blossoms are reminiscent of the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles where Sugimura briefly studied cooking and where the cherry blossoms are still celebrated. Sugimura brought his father to the Japanese American National Museum in the neighborhood, he said, a big step for his father in acknowledging his own Japanese heritage and what happened to him.

Photo by Eric Best
Photo by Eric Best

In the 1930s, Sugimura’s father, who was born in America, was incarcerated at Tule Lake Segregation Camp, an internment camp in northern California. The camp was among the largest sites where the U.S. government would relocate and imprison Japanese people during World War II.

Due to the internment, Sugimura said he realized records about his family have been wrong, from his grandmother’s birth date to the birthplace of his father’s siblings. While operating an authentic Japanese restaurant, he’s trying to understand his own Japanese American story, Sugimura added.

“Getting the story straight is a part-time job,” he said.

Running PinKU, Sugimura said, has allowed him to connect to the community, whether it’s been bringing food to nearby regulars with chronic illnesses or helping locals celebrate a special occasion.

“I don’t think I would have any of this going on had I gone to Uptown or Lyndale or just picked another neighborhood. There was something magical about being in this neighborhood,” he said.

Sugimura credits the neighborhood for letting him keep PinKU the way he wants to run it.

“I’m not trying to keep up with the Joneses. If I went across the river, even if I had a great landlord [and] a great price, everything would just have to be shinier, prettier, glitzier,” he said. “The goal is to keep it as authentically old school. No smoke and mirrors; no pretense.”

Sugimura and business partner Xiaoteng “X” Huang are working on the next chapter for PinKU: more restaurants. They’re ready to expand to airports, art galleries or possibly boutique hotels, he said. For their first phase, Sugimura said they’re looking to build out restaurants in three airports.

“There are like 10 directions, and now is the time to decide what direction we want to go in,” he said.

In the meantime, there are 32 seats at PinKU to fill and an ever-growing list of specials, from crispy fried salmon potstickers to crab hand rolls, on top of the restaurant’s standard menu of Japanese staples like a beloved crispy shrimp dish.

PinKU, at 20 University Ave. NE, is open daily for lunch from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. and dinner from 5 p.m.–10 p.m.