DeRusha Eats: Zen Box Izakaya

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It is not your sorry, broke, $0.99 packaged ramen noodle soup. The luscious, beautiful broth at Zen Box Izakaya is something quite special.

“I call it a bowl of soul,” chef and owner John Ng said.

Ng and his wife Lina Goh’s road to their own restaurant near the Guthrie Theater began in 1996, and the early years of the internet.

“I was in San Francisco,” Ng said.

“And I was in New Zealand,” Goh said. “I think it was the time when dial-up internet started and we were in the chat rooms, ICQ.”

They met in person, started a romance in San Francisco and got married in 1999.

“He proposed on the phone. Real romantic,” Goh joked.

“That’s the way we do things,” Ng said.

He noted they just celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary.

But their desk jobs left them hungry.

“So we quit our jobs. He was in architecture and I was in accounting. We both had corporate jobs and we were sick of it,” Goh said.

A friend suggested they move to Minnesota, where Japanese restaurants were lacking at the time. So, they did and they opened Zen Box in the skyway in 2004.

“We worked in restaurants, but we never owned a business. We learned a lot through the 11 years,” Goh said.

The dream of a free-standing restaurant came true in 2011, when a deal for a grocer in a spot on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis fell through. Goh and Ng jumped on the space, and Zen Box Izakaya was born.

“We want to do every day Japanese comfort food. That’s what we want to strive for. Japanese is not just about sushi. It’s every day comfort food that you can get and it’s approachable,” Goh said.

The centerpiece of the menu is tonkatsu pork belly ramen. It’s earthy, spicy, rich, creamy and magical.

“It’s not the instant ramen that you can cook in three minutes. The bowl is easy to put together, but the labor behind it takes 15 to 20 hours,” Goh said.

Chef Ng starts with a broth that never stops cooking. He roasts the chicken and fish bones that make the base of the broth, and then simmers it constantly.

“As a chef, I don’t think there’s a point you will say, ‘This is the perfect bowl,'” he said.

The assembly is impressive. Ingredients like watermelon radish, seaweed, kimchi, pork belly get put into the precise place. Roasted garlic oil is drizzled on top, creating a sheen. And a little bit of pork fat creates a rich aroma.

It is a beautiful construction befitting a former architect.

“I get to use the principals and dedication that I learned from architecture,” Ng said.

He also used these when he designed the interior layout of Zen Box Izakaya.

Ramen is only part of it. The word “Izakaya” in the name essentially means Japanese-style tapas. The food is made to share, like a perfect tuna poke and a unique avocado tempura.

The accountant and the architect are much happier as restaurant owners, and so are all of us who love Zen Box.

“I think the Twin Cities is starting to catch on to how explosive the flavors can be,” Goh said.

Zen Box Izakaya is open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and dinner every day but Sunday.

More from Jason DeRusha
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