Earlier this year, I convinced my boyfriend to take part in a scavenger hunt with me through Detroit in search of the elusive fried chicken sandwich at Popeye’s.
Sure, finding the sammie was part of the end game, but more so it was also to observe, as a food writer, the cultural phenomenon that had taken over all of Twitter this summer when the chain released its chicken sandwich and go on to epically troll Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s’ versions. Store after store (we hit five altogether in Detroit and Highland Park), we left empty-handed. Finally, disappointed, we grabbed a box of legs and thighs and went home.
That fruitless escapade got me thinking, though, there’s got to be a far superior chicken sandwich produced locally that’s more worthy of viral praise.
Well, this month I think we’ve found our match. And it couldn’t be a further departure from the “hate chicken” that hails in Detroit suburbs or its urban rival whose brand heavily markets to black consumers, thus influencing this summer’s hype.
I’m talking about Japanese noodle shop Ima’s newest and most ambitious location yet. On Monday, the long-anticipated new Midtown locale opened its doors to select friends and family for a soft opening and with it, the first small batch of Detroiters was introduced to Chef Mike Ransom’s karaage fried chicken sandwich.
Karaage refers to a Japanese cooking technique most often associated with fried chicken. Currently, karaage chicken appears as an appetizer at some sushi and ramen spots across Metro Detroit. This appears to be the first karaage sandwich available locally (though if you know of any, please do share the knowledge!). This style of fried chicken uses small pieces of dark meat (never white meat) that are first marinated — most often in what fellow food writer Kevin Pang calls a “trinity of soy sauce, sake, and mirin.” It’s then coated with seasoned wheat flour or potato starch, and then fried in a light oil. The result, a crisp skin that crackles with each bite and the juiciest of juicy meat. The marinating technique allows for the flavor of the actual chicken to shine. There’s no need for drenching in ranch or hot sauce. Ima does provide umami, rich furikake kewpie (which is often likened to mayo, but better) for dipping, which I would recommend more for its karaage chicken bites found on the menu’s shared section. For the sammie, a squeeze of lemon juice for added tang is plenty sufficient. And unlike those other behemoth chicken chains, there’s no sodium aftertaste.
The karaage chicken sandwich at Ima is made with chicken thighs and comes available in a spicy version with the house chili oil, and a non-spicy version, both on a brioche roll and both served with a side of Better Made potato chips. I opted to try the spicy chicken bites and the non-spicy sandwich to get a sense of both. The dark meat in the bites and sandwich were ever-so-succulent and the outside nice and crispy. That chili oil is so tear-jerkingly firey, that you just might be in need of relief to extinguish the heat. On the lunch or dinner side, I’d recommend an order of the fried Japanese yams for a sweet and savory balance.
For dessert though, Ima offers a vegan soft serve that is nearly indistinguishable from the traditional dairy variety. The soy-based treat is luxuriously smooth and creamy and comes available in a 9-ounce cup or as a sundae, with cubes of coconut jellies, Pocky sticks, Hello Panda cookies, coconut caramel, and of course, a cherry on top.
The new, 3,700-square-foot Ima is by far the largest location for the growing, insanely popular local chain. It started up at the very end of 2016 in its small space in Corktown offering a brief menu of udon noodles, rice bowls, and a few appetizers. A second location with a slightly more robust menu followed in Madison Heights. The menu at the new location offers some of the original favorites, but with a more expansive kitchen (the Midtown location was formerly home to Sweet Lorraine’s Fabulous Mac n’ Brewz), the lauded chef has more room to perform culinary excellence, such as with those divine sandwiches.
The new Ima location is at 4870 Cass Ave. across the street from Wayne State University.
This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.
Author: Serena Maria Daniels
Serena Maria Daniels is the co-founder and head chingona of Tostada Magazine. She is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit and specializes on the intersection of food, identity, and culture.
Find her on Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!