Ima, a Japanese-themed noodle bar in Corktown, had big shoes to fill. It replaced a sandwich shop, Rubbed, which I loved, in the heart of the neighbourhood at 2015 Michigan Ave., almost right across the street from Gold Cash Gold. But with components that make me love so many other restaurants, my petty bias should have been cast aside from the beginning.
Everything about Ima, from the communal seating – something I still think should be mandatory at a lion’s share of restaurants – to the idiosyncratic, tucked away bulk food and condiment sales rack, is simple, practical, yet complex. I’ll start with discussing the food.
The jicama tacos are like nothing I’ve had anywhere before. Jicama is a tuberous root vegetable that resembles something like the monstrous lovechild of a pigskin football and a russet potato. Luckily, it tastes nothing like it looks. Although tough and starchy like an uncooked potato would be, it’s much more pleasant to consume raw, with its expected crunch but surprising sweetness. Here, Ima slices it thinly and uses an actual jicama slice in place of a tortilla. I really couldn’t imagine it holding together but it worked unbelievably well. I’ve had jicama in salads, or slaws, but never like this.
I’ve had two different noodle bowls and loved them both for different reasons. The spicy pork udon is my favourite, and truly lives up to all three words in the title. It’s spicy as hell, and dominated by the two titular ingredients. It’s accented nicely with a soft egg and some vegetable matter, but the stars are not to be mistaken, and they’re fantastic.
I also sampled the forest udon, their vegan noodle offering. It’s independently great, (Windsor Independently?), and a great nod to all the Mushroom Hub truthers out there. It’s a porcini broth that’s lifted by tofu and trumpet mushrooms
I highly encourage any diners here to explore the add-ons portion of the menu as it gives you an amazing cross section of the general offerings at truly reasonable prices. I had a huge portion of barbecued eel for all of six dollars and it was one of the best things I ate, and one of the most affordable.
The liquor offerings are pretty intriguing and weird as well, and it’s led by shochu. Just when I thought there wasn’t a genus of alcohol Detroit restaurants had yet to show me, I walked into shochu. The flavour vaguely resembles sake, but it’s stronger and made with more ingredients than just rice, including, often, sweet potatoes. And there is a little sweetness to it, almost like grappa. It’s a distilled product, unlike sake, which is produced via a process much more akin to brewing. It’s served here with a fingernail-thin slice of lemon rind, neat, meant to sip slowly.
Lastly, a word on communal eating and the general atmosphere. At the risk of being lame and sappy, as I write this in between Christmas and New Years, communal eating enhances almost any dining situation by being, well, communal. There’s no replacing the act of creeping your neighbour’s food, asking them what they think of it, and wallowing in resentment for the rest of the month having ordered something less interesting. Yes, there are special opportunities that merit intimacy and privacy, but aside from those, why not toast with the stranger next to you, while mutually enjoying a great meal at the same establishment? To me, it’s not only been enjoyable, but it solves logistical headaches for restaurants that do not have a lot of space to work with. All of the above goes for Ima.
Ima has the look and feel of an express dining experience, but the thoughtfulness behind the expression of it, as well as the curated menu, are anything but. Your meal may indeed be quick, but you will likely be back for another.