Foodies were rightly quick to discover the many charms of our first big-city-style noodle bar and pan-Pacific pub, Zen Asian BBQ. Its ascent in the local restaurant ranks has been so rapid its managing partner, Mike Cardascia, a first-time restaurateur, has added lunch service in addition to the insanely popular daily happy hours and dinner. Read on for more on his winning recipe.
How did you come up with the idea for Zen?
I’ve lived here 15 years. I’m originally from Long Island. I was in Miami, and I had one meal from chef Koko [Editor’s note: He just goes by that single name], and every time he presented something different, I kept thinking, "This guy’s a genius." I told him right there I want to go into business with him. He looked at me like I had three heads, but he had a vision, too. We’re planning on expanding. We’re planning on opening 40 to 50 restaurants over the next 10 years. Everybody in the kitchen is people he brought over from Miami. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t mean business.
Can you describe your vision in more detail?
Chef Koko’s first idea was craft beer and Asian tapas. All of the meals prepared here are meant to be shared. He wanted to do Asian tapas, and he loves Korean barbecue—he wanted to mix a rustic Japanese pub look with a Korean barbecue joint. I thought we could take this concept all across the country. My background is in finance. I’m still in business, but honestly I spend most of my time in the restaurant now.
Will early and late happy hours continue?
Happy hour will be every day throughout the year, 5 to 6 and 10 till close. Some nights we stay open as late 1 a.m. We get a ton of people late at night.
Tell us a bit about lunch.
We’ve got a salad bar by the Buddha water fountain and sushi bar—we bring out a table for it. There are few different types of lettuce, broccoli, carrots, ginger dressing. Right now it’s basic salad items. It’s all-you-can-eat salad bar and miso soup with each lunch special. We also have the regular menu available.
This is one we’ve been wanting to ask for a while because it’s all over your website—what is “next-level sushi”?
It’s sushi with different types of high-quality ingredients and different sauces like balsamic-truffle. It’s mixing vegetables and taking it to another level. We only use real crab with our rolls. Not crab with a “k.” We serve somebody real crab in a California roll—that other stuff doesn’t exist here.
To plan a visit:
Zen Asian BBQ
10823 Tamiami Trail N., Naples