Restaurant Review: Ima gives Detroit more to love with third location
Cocktails and fried chicken sandwiches are the heroes at this campus hot spot, but there are still tons of noodle bowls to slurp up, many vegan and some gluten-free
There was already a flirtation between diners, students and influencers and the noodle restaurant Ima.
Now, with a third location open at Cass and Warren, it's a full-blown romance.
A mid-winter snowstorm on a recent February morning didn't stop a string of customers from filing into the latest outpost, which is larger than chef Mike Ransom's original spot in Corktown. This is a trickle compared to the line that stretched out the door when it opened in December, though.
The original Ima, where I had my first bowl of savory, magical butter-poached lobster udon has been going since 2017 on Michigan Avenue. A second Ima opened in the fall of 2018 in Madison Heights on John R, a corridor that has no shortage of casual Asian cafes and diners.
At the Midtown Ima, you order at the counter (or via a tablet on the wall for take-out), pay for your food and then take your seat. Depending on the time of day, you may be seated by a host. The atmosphere is relaxed, the servers are friendly and it's a hip space. Above all, the food is inexpensive, high quality and totally craveable.
While the Ima Midtown doesn't have the treasured lobster udon, they do have something the other locations don't have: karaage fried chicken sandwiches.
This is a big hunk of thigh meat lightly breaded and fried to a golden brown. Ransom and his team serve it with a perfectly dressed slaw (not too wet with a good crunch that has some black sesame seeds. It comes with a white, tangy mayo-based sauce, some slightly sweet pickle slices that are still bright green and crisp and a house chili sauce that is warm and smoky at first and then will light your mouth up!
The karaage sandwiches come spicy or not, and as chicken or tofu, $11 each. There's also an appetizer version on the shareables list for $9.
Ima's menus are very generous to vegetarians and those on gluten-free diets, and many dishes are low-key vegan.
Such a dish from the pan-fried yaki udon section of the menu has a thick, mustard-colored sauce fragrant with curry and ginger coating a mound of fat, slippery noodles that will require intermediate-level chopstick skills. Also in this mix are green onions, fresno peppers, cauliflower, green onions and pickled ginger. This was rich and satisfying in the restaurant, and even better later as leftovers.
The four yaki udon dishes — three vegan and one vegetarian — start at $12 and can be revved up with chicken, beef, shrimp, pork loin, pork belly or roasted tofu for an upcharge.
Ramen is a star here, too, and the shoyu ramen with roasted chicken broth, buttery baby corn and sesame garlic oil is a stand-out. Ima Midtown has rice bowls and pho, as well.
A full bar is stocked with a variety of imported beers, liquors, wines and soft drinks, including a healthy variety of sake. The house hot has a nice mild flavor, a slight sweetness with a mild bubble gum finish.
All three Imas (pronounced EEE-ma, not EYE-ma) have a super cheap kids menu with root vegetables with buttered udon noodles or steamed rice or a bowl of chicken noodle soup for just $5. Anybody can appreciate some fresh strawberries for $3.
Like the other locations, this new one — just steps from the Wayne State University campus — has wood tables, metal chairs and a selection of imported beer and wine.
Midtown has an expertly curated cocktail list developed by Ima's director of operations, Robert Stone, and restaurant manager Nikki Pajakowski. All the cocktails are just $8 (below average for a craft drink in this neighborhood) and employ imported spirits like Japanese whiskey and gin.
The drinks and the flavors in the cuisine go hand-in-hand. The You're Toasty cocktail, for instance, is an Irish whiskey cocktail over ice mixed with orange, sweet sesame and a garish of star anise. The Princess Kitana has Roku gin and a miso peach jam balanced with lemon, tonic and mint.
This space was formerly Sweet Lorraine's Fabulous Mac n' Brewz and before that longstanding Marwil Bookstore. The independent bookseller that was part of the community from the late 1940s until about six years ago is honored with a sign near the back of the restaurant by a pair of unisex restrooms.
The newest outpost will add online ordering and Sunday hours in the near future.
Another addition coming down the line is music. Ransom has roots in Detroit's techno history and is working with another electronic music veteran, Kevin Reynolds, to bring in DJs and live performers for post-dinner events, but nothing that interferes with the restaurant operations.
It's only been a few months for the Cass Corridor Ima and it already seems to be a perfect fit for the corner. All the locations have slight differences, and this one benefits from more space for fried items and a well-stocked, sit-down bar.
Ransom seems content with three Ima locations for now, but he said his lease for the original Corktown restaurant is up in June, making the future there uncertain. When that time comes, he said he'd like to find another Corktown space. Whether that is in the stars or not, this chef and his team have solidified a relationship with the city's diners that should make Ima a new classic and a favorite for many years to come.
4870 Cass, Detroit
(313) 883-9788 or imanoodles.com
Other locations at 2015 Michigan in Detroit and 32240 John R in Madison Heights
Rating: ★★★ (excellent)
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Prices: Appetizers, $5-$10; sandwiches, $11; entrees start at $12 and go up depending on add-ons; desserts, $5-$8; kids items, $3-$5; sake, shochu and wine, $5 and up; sake to share, $18-$49; beers, $4-$5; cocktails, $8.
Noise level: Mellow at lunch, louder at night
Accessibility: No barriers
Parking: Metered street parking on both Cass and Warren, small lot that is usually $5 down Cass.
What the stars mean:
★ — good
★★ — very good
★★★ — excellent
★★★★ — extraordinary