FOOD: Zen again - Japanese food comes to downtown DuluthMom’s best hot dish. Grandma’s fried chicken. Or Dad’s pancakes. Whatever it was for you, comfort food came in a hearty serving that made you feel well cared for,and the dish can envoke those feelings throughout your life.
By: June Kallestad, Living North
Mom’s best hot dish. Grandma’s fried chicken. Or Dad’s pancakes. Whatever it was for you, comfort food came in a hearty serving that made you feel well cared for,and the dish can envoke those feelings throughout your life.
But Yasuko Holt, a Japanese woman who moved to the U.S. when she was 20 and married Hermantown native Rick Holt, found getting the comfort foods of her youth wasn’t easy.
“I love the food I grew up with, just like everyone else,” Yasuko
says. “I especially like high quality, sushi-grade fish and it’s very hard
to get here. There are not a lot of [restaurant] vendors who supply it.”
And there wasn’t a Japanese restaurant in town that those vendors could sell to anyway. So when the Holts opened the Zen House three years ago in restaurant space attached to the ICO gas station at 4541 Haines Road in Hermantown, Yasuko’s search for fish that can be eaten sashimi-style (raw) took her all the way to Chicago.
“I thought, well, if I put up a Japanese restaurant, I can have all the foods I like. And other people will like it, too!” she asserts. Yasuko was right. Word of mouth has made the Zen House a repeat destination for sushi, sake and tempura lovers or those wanting a change from standard Chinese options. Those who have never tried Japanese food, “leave with a smile on their face,” she says.
Last October, Yasuko opened a second Zen House in the Holiday Center in downtown Duluth to feed the busy downtown lunch crowd from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Her goal is to get as many people as possible introduced to Japanese cuisine.
“It’s a unique food item and it will especially appeal to our traveling hotel guests who are looking for something different,” says Holiday Center Property Manager Barb Perrella. “Yasuko already has a local following.” The restaurant is on the second level of the Holiday Center, in the space formerly occupied by the Shanghai Restaurant.
Because Japanese food is new to the Duluth area, Yasuko finds herself educating customers. “People here think sushi is all raw foods, and that’s not true,” she explains. “[The Japanese] put anything in sushi—steak, shrimp, leftovers, whatever you have.”
Sushi is simply seasoned sticky rice, rolled around a variety of ingredients with a thin-pressed seaweed sheet called nori. Raw fish is
the traditional Japanese ingredient in sushi but a popular sushi at the
Zen House is the Zen Roll with smoked salmon, cream cheese and avocado. And while you can get raw tuna or salmon in your sushi roll, you can also get the American-friendly California Roll with avocado, cooked crab and cucumber. Sushi rolls are served with potent wasabi sauce and a thin slice of pickled ginger to nibble between sushi pieces. The Zen House also serves nigiri sushi, which is a rice ball pressed around a variety of cooked or raw ingredients.
The “Japanese-food-equals-raw-fish” myth likely stems from sashimi, very fresh, very high quality raw fish like tuna or yellowtail, sliced very thin. It is one of Yasuko’s comfort foods.
When her customers aren’t sure what to order, Yasuko recommends the Pork Donburi—something her “meat and potatoes” father-in-law likes. It’s a pork cutlet, egg and onion on top of rice with a little broth. And some items on the menu are similar to Chinese foods — noodle dishes and fried rice — but tweaked for Japanese tastes.
When Yasuko was growing up in Japan her grandmother fed the family. “She was an excellent cook. She never measured anything. She did everything by taste,” Yasuko says. “I learned how to cook just by watching her.”