X Huang (left) and John Sugimura in their new restaurant PinKU in Northeast Minneapolis. Photo by Eric Best

PinKU prepares to open flagship restaurant in Northeast

Updated: June 16, 2016 - 10:11 am

The chain’s first location hopes to mesh fine dining and fast casual.

At first glance, PinKU’s flagship restaurant in Northeast is easy to look over. Yet, a closer look at the apartment-sized concept reveals the founders’ fine-tuning to be a leaner, more refined fast-casual restaurant chain.

Co-founders Xiaoteng “X” Huang and John Sugimura have been building out the Japanese street-food concept’s first location in former Primrose Park space in Northeast Minneapolis since earlier this year. The 960-square-foot restaurant officially opens the night of Friday, June 17 at 20 University Ave. NE in the Nicollet Island-East Bank neighborhood.

Huang, who handles PinKU’s business side, is a Minnesota native who left a career in finance with companies like Goldman Sachs and Target to gain kitchen experience in other fast-casual chains like Chipotle and Noodles & Company. Sugimura, another Minnesota native, was raised in Japan and has worked as a private chef, serving thousands of people with some of the same food PinKU plans to serve.

Sugimura, who also designed the restaurant, has five installations to bring diners to the food carts of Kyoto’s streets, including one that welcomes you in the door. A simple yellow lamp casts yellow-painted light across the front door, evoking, Sugimura says, the single, dingy lights of Japanese dumpling houses.

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Walking inside, the menu becomes a second installation thanks to rows of prayer plaques made from Japanese Douglas fir trees. Each hanging plaque, something you’d see at Japanese temples to wish someone luck or to mourn an ancestor, he said, has a menu item. In the nearby wait area, diners will sit on salvaged tree stumps.

“We just wanted to really capture that old-school, hundreds-of-years-old kind of mentality,” Sugimura said.

Continuing the journey, the 32-seat dining area is painted midnight blue and is lined with simple, dark sconces. Wood tables sit underneath, meant to appear like the street carts serving fried fare to late-night guests.

“They just kind of emerge at dark. That’s where the menu comes from,” Sugimura said.

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Lining the open kitchen is a counter with the fourth installation, a grid of traditional, black-and-white kimono fabrics. It pairs with the fifth installation, the eponymous “PinKU” mural that Sugimura designed with artist Jared Tuttle. The installation depicts a 29-foot fish with green, pink, black and white scales with flowers, kimono patterns — including Sugimura’s family crest — and other designs.

Since first announcing the menu earlier this year, PinKU hasn’t touched it much. The lunch and dinner menu consists of $4.50-$9 options like a yellowtail tuna with crispy onions ($7), seared salmon on rice ($6.50) or with a rice cake ($5.50), and fried ramen with crispy pork ($7). They’ve also added a tuna poke with avocado, radish and more fixings ($8). A kid’s meal with crispy rice, potstickers and ramen goes for $5.

Sugimura said they plan to roll out breakfast in the fall, which will likely be a single item. After 10 p.m., PinKU will have a smaller menu consisting of a few items.

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On the beverage side, PinKU has a $6 “PinKU Elixir,” a party drink designed by Sugimura that consists of champagne, pomegranate juice, orange liqueur, sake and lime. The restaurant will also have a champagne ($7), a house sake (Kikusui Funaguchi, $4-9), several wines ($6) and two beers — a 22-ounce Sapporo ($7) and a 16-ounce Coors Light ($4).

“We want to make this whole menu approachable, strip away the pretense,” Huang said.

PinKU will also serve a few unique bottled or canned beverages, including three flavors of Banzai Bunny sparkling sake, Turbo Tea and Spindrift seltzer waters.

Unlike many casual Asian restaurants, PinKU won’t have disposable chopsticks, which would’ve run them $800 a month, Sugimura said. In fact, the restaurant won’t have any paper products. Food will come out on custom stainless-steel trays with metal chopsticks. There will even be cloth napkins.

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Even if the food won’t be presented like other fast-casual restaurants, Sugimura says it will come out just as fast. He said PinKU will have four-minute ticket times.

“If you really have only 15 minutes you can really come in and grab something to eat no differently than at Chipotle or Jimmy John’s,” he said.

Another peculiarity of PinKU is its transparency. The two are planning to have cameras livestream the restaurant on its website partially to hold themselves accountable, but also as a service to customers.

“If you’re at home and you were going to come out at 9:30, wouldn’t you love to know is it busy [or] is there a table?” Sugimura said.

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As far as the next PinKU restaurant goes, the two are already working to get in at the airport, which they say will be their next location. Previously they looked at a local art gallery and a hotel development.

PinKU has already drawn interest from some locals, including several applicants from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management looking for start-up experience — not to mention an out-of-the-blue investor. A nearby condo owner contacted them over Facebook looking to invest in the concept.

“When you get that, you’re like ‘We got this,’” Sugimura said.

PinKU officially opens on June 17 at 10 p.m. The restaurant’s regular hours will be 11 a.m.-10 p.m. every day with late-night dining (10p.m.-12 a.m.) on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.