In August, Tostada Magazine founder Serena Maria Daniels set out on a mission to taste the Popeyes fried chicken sandwich. The craggy fast-food sandwich debuted in August to increasingly sensational headlines that spiraled into an insatiable viral mania. Customers simply couldn’t get enough of the cultural phenomenon — or the sandwich itself. Daniels went to five branches of the fried-chicken chain to find one, coming up empty-handed each time. Finally, she headed off to a video shoot where, coincidentally, someone had just gotten their hands on the elusive, crispy, bread-wrapped bird. Daniels tried a bite. It was, in a word, “magnificent,” she reported in an August Facebook post just before the sought-after sandwich temporarily disappeared from national menus.
Daniels, who occasionally contributes to Eater, says she went into the mission with a healthy dose of skepticism about the role of fast food in communities of color. However, the experience also led her — and many other reporters — to think about whether any other chicken-sandwich delights in Detroit’s own backyard were worthy of the same level of praise. In December, she found the sandwich that spoke to her: the karaage chicken sandwich at Ima in Midtown.
Within hours of Daniels’s story about the karaage sandwich publishing on Tostada, Detroit Free Press critic Mark Kurlyandchik dropped a story drawing similar comparisons to the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen sandwich. Soon after, similar headlines touting the sandwich emerged on Deadline Detroit and Metro Times. In fewer than 24 hours following the restaurant’s first service on Cass Avenue, Ima’s dish had become the latest hyped sandwich to emerge out of Detroit in 2019.
Detroit’s food media, and, as a result, its restaurant patrons, went absolutely wild for sandwiches this year. In a city with some undeniably legendary sandwiches — the Boogaloo Wonderland at Chef Greg’s Soul-in-the Wall (whose greatest champion, Allee Willis, died last week), the fluffy egg sandwich at Astro Coffee, the hot pastrami at Hygrade Deli, and the hulking deli sandwiches at Ernie’s Market are just a few of the many that come to mind — 2019 produced more headline-generating sandwich items than any year in recent memory.
Sure, there were the short-lived sandwiches at the Farmer’s Hand, which people sought out in droves a few years ago, and last year’s December breakfast sandwich hit, Iggy’s Eggies, but the sandwich landscape seemed to go into hyperdrive in the past 12 months.
The season of sandwiches got a head start in Detroit in January with the debut of Latido at Joebar in Hazel Park, where Mark Kurlyandchik found a fast favorite in the Cuban sandwich. Then came the nearly simultaneous openings of Eater Award winner Saffron De Twah, with its Moroccan fried chicken and cauliflower shawarma batbout sandwiches, and Ochre Bakery, whose menu features braised lamb sandwich on fresh focaccia.
Summer brought an ovation from Bon Appétit for Marrow’s not-so-secret deli sandwiches and the rival lobster roll takeovers at trend-setter Mudgie’s Deli and Birmingham’s Hazel, Ravines and Downtown. At the same time, ahead of its November debut, Mink was busy tempting future customers with a different type of enchanting seafood-sandwich delight: the restaurant’s marvelously soft and buttery shrimp rolls. In the same spirit as Daniels, city-run site the Neighborhoods rooted out its local contenders in the chicken sandwich wars with entries including Midwest Grille Express, Pack Your Lunch, and Durden’s Catering.
But the true breakout hit of 2019 was a modest Bosnian restaurant that snuck onto the scene in May and soon dominated the food-media conversation. Within weeks of its opening, Metro Times’s critic Tom Perkins gave his nod of approval to Balkan House, noting its particularly tasty German-style döner in a review. Meanwhile, Kurlyandchik — a noted döner devotee — was quietly making repeat visits to the restaurant. The Free Press critic tells Eater he’d been fruitlessly seeking out a worthy döner in the U.S. since having his first taste of the popular European street food on a trip to Germany during graduate school. In 2016, he posted a genuine plea to his Facebook account urging someone, anyone, in Detroit to open a döner shop.
It took nearly three years for his wish to be fulfilled. After spotting Balkan House’s opening, the Free Press critic estimates he made four to five trips to the restaurant over the course of a month. Owner Juma Ekic’s recipe isn’t entirely faithful to the typical döner. While Ekic spent time in Frankfurt, Germany, before settling in Hamtramck, her sandwich features meat grilled on a flat top rather than sliced off a spit. Ekic also serves the döner on lepinja, a light and airy flatbread from her native Bosnia, with garlic sauce. “The result is more Berlin döner-inspired than a faithful reconstruction, but wholly Hamtramck and downright delicious,” Kurlyandchik says.
He delayed letting his devoted readers in on the good flatbread-wrapped sandwich news, in part “because I selfishly only wanted it to myself for a while.” Kurlyandchik says he was in the restaurant interviewing Ekic when Detroit News critic Melody Baetens happened to call about a forthcoming article. Kurlyandchik rushed out that day to finish his story.
Baetens’s piece dropped that night. The headline? “People are freaking out over this Hamtramck sandwich.” A frenzy of similarly exuberant stories followed, driving traffic to the restaurant like some sort of self-fulfilling hype prophecy: “Balkan House in Hamtramck is metro Detroit’s only spot for German-style doner kebab”; “This Döner Kebab Sandwich From A New Hamtramck Cafe Is A Must-Eat, Enthusiasts Gush.” During those weeks, Balkan House experienced hours-long waits for döner. The restaurant (and the döner by proxy) was even spotlighted in a feature in the New York Times.
The sensation over a single item was a powerful recipe. In an interview with Kurlyandchik in October, Ekic acknowledged how the early success propelled her business into rapid growth. Since opening last spring, Balkan House has already spiraled off into a second location in Ferndale — a nod to her loyal Oakland County customer base.
On Ima Midtown’s third day of business, seats were packed and a line meandered through the entryway. Ima’s brioche buns were sold out through the following Tuesday, and the restaurant had to make do with potato rolls instead. Owner Mike Ransom estimates his restaurant sold 800 sandwiches within the first six days of business and continues to sell roughly 100 a day. “It makes sense,” Ransom says, noting the how the summer’s chicken-sandwich wars drove the narrative, “but I didn’t expect for it to dominate our menu the way it has.”
For the team at Ima, putting a karaage chicken sandwich on the menu was always part of the vision. “Japanese karaage fried chicken was something that I always wanted to do, and I thought that’s a really important part of the izakaya concept,” he says. Prior to opening his first udon noodle and rice bowl shop in December 2016, Ransom intended to open in a larger building near Six Mile and Livernois that would have had ample space in the kitchen for a fryer to make chicken sandwiches. In contrast, the Corktown location had limited space, and Ransom decided to edit his izakaya-style menu.
The following year, Ransom gained the momentum necessary to expand. Like Ekic, he looked toward Oakland County, setting up at the same Madison Heights parking lot as one of his most-frequented stores, 168 Asian Mart. While the second location was larger than the first, allowing for new dishes, it still lacked the the room for a fryer.
In Midtown, Ransom finally saw the opportunity to build the restaurant menu he had originally envisioned. Ima’s sandwiches come in two varieties — mild and spicy — with the option of a juicy fried tofu patty instead of chicken. The sandwich is served on a brioche bun from Knickerbocker Baking Company in Madison Heights with furikake Kewpie mayo, tangy napa cabbage slaw, and sides of pickles and lemon.
The spicy version is somewhat inspired by Nashville hot chicken in that it doesn’t use dry-spice seasoning, according to Ransom. Instead, his team mixes dry ghost pepper, habanero, chipotle, and Korean chile into Ima’s house-toasted chile oil to dress the spicy sandwiches. It’s the first time that Ima has offered an explicitly spicy item at its restaurants. “There’s always a fine line of ‘Is it too hot?’ or ‘Is it, like, not giving people what they want?’ when they order hot foods,” he says. “We’ve got it dialed in to the point where people say it’s about a seven, where it’s got a lot of flavor but it still gets you a little bit of eyebrow sweat.”
Daniels says she didn’t walk in to Ima on opening day expecting to fall for a sandwich. She ordered the chicken sandwich at Ima Midtown to bring home to her partner and picked up a spicy tuna rice bowl for herself. However, she decided to try a bite of the karaage before delivering the meal and was pleasantly surprised. “That’s when that lightbulb went off in my head,” she says, “like, ‘Oh! this is the local answer to Popeyes.’”
Daniels, like many people, doesn’t usually seek out restaurant sandwiches at all. “I grew up thinking of sandwiches at restaurants as unnecessary,” she says, noting that she usually doesn’t purchase something she could make just as easily at home “We’ve been seeing chefs and restaurants taking those otherwise pedestrian or everyday comfort foods and doing their own twist on it,” she says. “I think that the sandwich phenomenon is a reflection of that tendency.”
Ransom is excited that the sandwiches were so well received. “I think anytime that you can have something that’s as simple as a chicken sandwich [become] something that people can get excited about, it’s fun,” he says. “What I like to focus our energy on in our concepts is that enjoyable food doesn’t have to be complicated and expensive. It can be something that’s very accessible and something that you can have multiple times a week if you want.”
After some initial scaling issues with ordering buns and marinating chicken en masse, Ima Midtown is beginning to adjust to meet the demand from customers. Still, Ransom and his culinary team, particularly chef de cuisine Brian Lukacs and sous chef Brittany Beckers, haven’t stopped making sure the hit item is the best version it can possibly be. The pair have been hard at work fine-tuning the recipe by adding more citrus and ginger to the marinade and brightening the slaw with more yuzu juice.
Now that the sandwich has had its moment, Ransom hopes people will start to discover the other new additions to Ima’s Midtown menu. He suggests the pan-fried yaki udon and fried Japanese yams.
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